A confusing trend is unfolding in recent years as increasingly we see federal regulatory decisions on crop protection products being challenged by individual provinces or states. This is happening both in Canada with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) and the United States with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is especially true in jurisdictions with large urban populations. Despite having far fewer resources than their federal counterparts, provincial/state governments are regulating in direct conflict with the feds. Surely, voter pressure a little closer to home has some influence in these decisions. The inconsistency in decision making, however, is muddling things for both growers and consumers alike.
California listed glyphosate under its state Proposition 65 law in July 2017. This is the law that requires statements often seen on consumer products stating “WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” California’s actions were a result of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Products containing glyphosate for agricultural use in California would be required to include the Proposition 65 warning statement on their packaging.
The problem was the IARC classification is not supported amongst any regulators. As was stated by PMRA back in January, “no pesticide regulatory authority in the world currently considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the levels at which humans are currently exposed.” The EPA also disagrees with the IARC assessment. Just recently, EPA published a letter indicating that it deems California’s glyphosate warning to be a false and misleading statement. Furthermore, it considers any glyphosate products bearing this warning to be misbranded and noncompliant with U.S. federal laws. It seems for now that federal authority will prevent California from putting cancer statements on glyphosate labels, but almost surely appeals will follow.
Another state/federal controversy has been unfolding around the insecticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide and also happens to be currently proposed for cancellation on food use in Canada by PMRA. Back in 2007, environmental and farm worker groups petitioned EPA to ban all food uses of chlorpyrifos. After EPA initially proposed cancellation, it made a decision in March 2017 not to ban the agricultural use of chlorpyrifos, and extend the decision timeline to 2022 to develop a complete risk assessment. After several appeals, in April 2019, EPA was ordered to make a decision on chlorpyrifos within 90 days. In July of this year, EPA announced a final action denying the 2007 petition and maintaining current uses of chlorpyrifos.
Now, despite the fact that chlorpyrifos remains federally registered in the U.S., several states have enacted or are considering statewide bans on its use. California, New York, and Hawaii are among this list. Attorney generals from a coalition of states are now suing EPA for “not protecting Americans.” The only certain thing about this chlorpyrifos controversy is that it is far from over. While state and federal politics and the litigation culture of America explain some of the happenings in the U.S., Canada has not been immune to this type of divergence between federal and provincial regulations.
One of the more recent examples would be Ontario’s Class 12 regulations regarding neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed. Back in July 2015, regulations took effect that now require grain growers to have a field pest assessment completed before planting neonicotinoid-treated seed. This was largely presented and sold as a measure to protect pollinators. However, PMRA’s decision in April 2019 for two of the major seed treatments including clothianidin and thiamethoxam concluded that “Health Canada completed a thorough risk assessment for seed treatment uses of clothianidin and thiamethoxam which determined negligible risk to pollinators.” Class 12 regulations remain in place in Ontario in spite of the federal conclusion.
Now, I’m all for regulation of crop protection products, for the safety of workers, consumers, and the environment. But why are we fighting ourselves on how we do it? We have a highly competent federal regulatory body in Canada with the PMRA, as is the EPA in the U.S., which have hundreds of specialized staff whose mandate it is to protect Canadians from unacceptable risks from crop protection products. Clearly, they aren’t rushing their decisions. Yet provincial and state governments, along with smaller scientific and regulatory departments reviewing less extensive datasets, reach opposite conclusions.
Unfortunately, I suppose it comes down to politics. As growers here in Canada, we should be proud and supportive of our federal regulatory system. As much as it has its own challenges – as have been written in many Crop Protection columns – it is still much better than a provincial alternative. Provincial governments all applying different standards on which crop protection products can and can’t be used would be a disaster for horticulture. For Canada, let’s try and leave domestic politics out and let PMRA do its job regulating crop protection.