A popular weed killer is back under review after the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that Health Canada didn’t follow its own rules for regulating pesticides and herbicides.
It is the latest twist in ongoing debates around the world about whether glyphosate is carcinogenic and dangerous to humans.
The chemical was first authorized in Canada in 1976 and is currently found in more than 100 weed killers, many of them used by farmers to control weeds in the fields.
But glyphosate has been under increased scrutiny globally since the International Agency for Research on Cancer said in 2015 that it “probably” causes cancer.
Health Canada reauthorized glyphosate two years later saying the product remains safe if used with specific guidance, but non-profit organization Safe Food Matters and others objected to that decision.
The Federal Court of Appeal is not overturning the authorization but said in a ruling last week the regulator didn’t properly explain why it rejected concerns raised by Safe Food Matters, and therefore must go back and reconsider those concerns.
Safe Food Matters and multiple environmental organizations are hoping the decision will force the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Health Canada to appoint a team of independent scientists to assess the safety of glyphosate.
The groups concerned about the safety of glyphosate wanted the regulator to appoint an expert team of scientists to review the evidence about glyphosate. They are concerned that some of the science used to authorize its use again was influenced by Monsanto, the original makers of Roundup.
Monsanto was bought by Germany’s Bayer AG in 2018.
“Hopefully PMRA gets it right the second time round and comes to the decision that a review panel is warranted,” said Mary Lou McDonald, president of Safe Food Matters. “There is still a chance for a happy ending on the Canadian chapter of this pesticide, a story which is being told all around the world.”
Bayer has faced multiple lawsuits in the United States from Americans claiming Roundup gave them cancer. Several individual cases resulted in multimillion-dollar awards to the plaintiffs, though Bayer is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court in at least one of those cases.
Bayer continues to assert that Roundup is safe but in 2020 it agreed to a US$10 billion settlement for at least 95,000 claims against it.
Most national regulators, like Health Canada, have concluded glyphosate is safe for humans in very small amounts.
Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada, says there is some hope new evidence about glyphosate that has come to light in the last five years will be part of the picture as the PMRA reconsiders its decision.
“A lot of research has happened since that last intervention in 2019 and it’s all pointing to grave concerns about human health impacts,” she said.
Much of that has to do with some changes in how glyphosate is now used, and in the dietary habits of Canadians. The weed killer is allowed to be used just before harvest, which some argue means there is more glyphosate residue left on the crops when they’re consumed by humans.
In a written statement Health Canada at first didn’t directly address the court decision but later sent a second statement saying it was reviewing the ruling.