Letter: A hardy group of concerned Islanders remain at the forefront against herbicides

No rest until the government bans the use of glyphosate in all its forms

To the Expositor:

Islanders rightly oppose use of glyphosate-based herbicides, but this is a world-wide problem.

Over the last two years, a small group of concerned Islanders have often felt like mosquitoes trying to sting a corporate elephant. This powerful corporation—originally Monsanto—now part of an even larger corporation—Bayer—is worth around $100 billion!

Originally, their focus was local, urgent and modest in scope. Some Island residents (Zak Nichols, Petra Wall, myself and Pat Hess) had seen statutory notices published in our local media informing the Manitoulin public that Hydro One was planning to spray a herbicide (glyphosate-based Garlon) in sections of its rights of ways on the Island, and they were opposed to this.

They approached several Island municipal councils to get their support for trying to stop this. That support was eventually given, though not without some resistance.

In parallel, the group set up petitions to approach the Ontario government’s Minister of Environment asking for the legislation governing pesticide use (Pesticides Act) to be changed. Between the two, they collected well over 1,000 signatures from Islanders who shared their concern about the use of glyphosates. MPP Michael Mantha presented the petitions to the Ontario legislature and to the appropriate minister. Unfortunately, all the group got back were perfunctory replies.

The Expositor and Recorder have done a wonderful job in the past reporting on the group’s efforts to highlight the questionable use of pesticides on the Island.

Glyphosate-based products have been around for several decades. They became controversial in the early 2000s when Monsanto packaged glyphosate for residential use as Roundup targeted for spraying dandelions on home lawns and driveways (generally referred to as “cosmetic use”).

Local municipalities responded to citizens of the day with local bylaws that covered the full spectrum of limitations and bans. By 2009, this had become such an irritant to the government that the then-minister, John Gerretsen, enacted the Cosmetic Pesticides Act which took away all authority from the municipal level to enact further bylaws, and rendered all those that existed as retroactively “inoperative,” leaving municipalities with few tools in their toolbox to respond to citizens’ concerns.

Zak Nichols and myself got hundreds of signatures on a petition a couple of years ago. Petra Wall got a similar number so Manitoulin residents and other Ontarians agree there are concerns. Mike Mantha carried the petitions to Queen’s Park and sent them to the then Minister of the Environment, but since then there have been three changes of minister (maybe four—it’s getting hard to keep count). Several Manitoulin municipalities were formally supportive of our efforts but couldn’t pass bylaws on this because the Ontario government took away their authority to do that.

So, what has happened since then? Well, the pesticides in question, glyphosates, found in products like Garlon and Roundup, has been proven to be cancer-causing. The manufacturer, Bayer-Monsanto, has been losing court cases in the US so fast it is now contemplating make a $12 billion offer to all litigants so it can get on with the rest of its business.

Meanwhile, many other jurisdictions have begun to phase out use of glyphosates. The latest is Mexico, which announced in June that it will be ordering the phasing out of glyphosate use by 2024. Canada currently appears to be ignoring what is happening in the rest of the world. If anything, the current Ontario government appears to be loosening the rules for use of pesticides generally.

So, what is the group looking for now? First, they would like the government of Ontario (and ideally the government of Canada) to ban use of glyphosate in all its forms. That would address their immediate concern which is the use of this poisonous product for “vegetation management” alongside roads by the utility companies and the contractors they use. Some of them are frankly careless in the way they use the product and several Islanders have reported incidents they have observed where the spraying is taking place. There are specialized contractors on the Island. We understand that they are conscientious and use great care, but they are using glyphosate products (Roundup) and should prepare to change. Second, they want authority to manage these kinds of threats to be passed back to the municipalities which are answerable to their populations. As climate change continues, it will have different impacts in local zones and it is vital that local authorities have all the tools they need to manage problems that could occur.

And the mosquito and the elephant? They have had experiences of both government (specifically environment) and corporate entities (Hydro One) increasingly ignore them even though what they were asking for was reasonable to they hope glyphosates will be banned here sooner or later. Hydro One has been implying recently that they are now a private sector entity and not subject to Access to Information requirements. Well, these mosquitoes will not be brushed off and will find ways to penetrate the hides.

Of course, the cosmetic use of glyphosate products is just the tiniest tip of the smallest market for this pesticide. For the real part of glyphosate use, you have to look at agriculture (incidentally one of the four areas of exception in the Pesticides Act following enactment of the Cosmetic Pesticides Act). 

Worldwide, glyphosate based products total up to an estimated 8.6 billion kilograms annually (the figures for Canada not available at time of going to press). Not bad for a chemical which in its early days couldn’t find a use!

But for a general herbicide that kills on a broad spectrum, not exactly useful in agriculture until someone in Monsanto thought ‘now genetic engineering is well understood.’ If we could genetically engineer crop seeds to be resistant to glyphosate, we could have a lock on the market both coming and going so voila, along came GMO seeds and the rest is history.

Paul Darlaston

Kagawong