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CACCIA Speaks Out, Again!
OPINION / published June 10, 2000

It's time government give public health protection precedence
Governments have acted without waiting for the smoking gun, due to competing views by sectoral interests

by Liberal MP Charles Caccia
Special to The Hill Times

During the past 12 months the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development of the House of Commons has studied not only the extent of, and the reasons for, the use of pesticides, but also their impact on human health and the environment. We have also studied the economic implications of their use as well as the administrative responsibility for regulating them.

Clearly, as a society, we have become very dependent on the use of pesticides. This does not mean, however, that we are unable to alter such practices. We can all think of other products which were once widely used in our society and today have been abandoned because of changes in values and attitude. Prime examples include the use of tobacco, asbestos and lead. The major shift with respect to public acceptance of smoking would not have been contemplated two decades ago. The same can be said about the use of lead in gasoline -- now mostly a thing of the past -- yet deeply entrenched when the first concerns about its neurotoxicity emerged. A similar pattern can be found in the use of asbestos in buildings, once prevalent and now banned.

As we all know, governments act with greater speed and resolution when clear arguments are made about dangers posed to public health. At times, governments have acted without waiting for the smoking gun, but at times reluctantly due to competing views by sectoral interests. In the meantime, the public bore the costs of protracted inaction, be it in the form of pulmonary diseases and cancer in the case of tobacco and asbestos, or in the form of lower IQs and learning disabilities in children, as in the case of lead. With pesticides, we have good reasons to worry about public health, safety and the special vulnerability of our children. Public health groups, including family physicians, were very forceful and persuasive in expressing to the committee their deep concerns about the current pervasive use of pesticides in our society. Citizens are not waiting for the smoking gun to act; they are taking action to reduce, and in some cases ban, the use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes in their communities.

When we looked at the economic side of this issue, a key question emerged: can our present food production and distribution systems, which are so integral to our daily lives, survive in the absence of pesticides? The frank answer is that our reliance on pesticides in agriculture is so overwhelming, it would be impossible for us to abandon their use in the short term. Unfortunately, there is no replacement system readily available, no instant or magic solution. There is much debate as to whether an adequate food supply, at a reasonable price for consumers and a lesser cost to farmers, can be brought to market without pesticides. When could organic farming become an economically viable alternative for farmers and consumers and under what conditions?

The European Union has experienced a remarkable growth in organic agriculture in the last decade, particularly in Austria, Finland, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden, due to the introduction of EU and national grants. The land being farmed organically in Europe has increased about eight times between 1987 and 1997, with Austria leading the way. The European Union's aim is to have 2.5 per cent of all farms in organic production by early this year while the Austrian government has set the target to 20 per cent. The committee hearings made us aware that we should have started long before now to plan and build such a replacement system in Canada, in light of the strong evidence that chemical pesticides are detrimental to our environment, health and particularly our children's health.

We looked at the current system of regulating pesticides in Canada and we asked ourselves whether it is possible for one agency, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), to perform two virtually conflicting tasks, namely that of approving chemical pesticides as requested by industry while at the same time regulating them in order to protect human health. We asked ourselves whether it is possible to strike a balance between economic and health protection goals. The minister of health described the conflict himself on May 28, 1999 in question period when he said: "The PMRA has to balance public safety and environmental concerns against the needs of producers and growers."

We found, however, that pesticides are highly poisonous substances designed to kill living organisms and are thus potentially harmful to workers using them and to farming and urban communities unknowingly exposed as well as to consumers. Therefore, we asked ourselves whether a regulatory system could be designed that would give clear and absolute precedence to human health. Based on our findings, it must be designed as such.

The choice facing us is clear: either to continue with our chronic dependence on pesticides to the detriment of the environment, agricultural sustainability and human health or, to give public health protection clear precedence. We have already done so with tobacco, lead and asbestos. Pesticides should be next.

Liberal MP Charles Caccia is chairman of the House Environment Committee and represents the federal riding of Davenport, Ont.