Glyphosate residue results a matter of perspective

“Oh my God, there’s gly-phosate in our food,” many consumers said after hearing the results of a residue study by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 


Meanwhile, many people in agriculture looked at the same results and said, “wow, this is good news. Residue levels are almost all below the stringent tolerances.”


It’s all a matter of perspective. Different people and news agencies looking at the same report came away with different interpretations. 


Nearly 3,200 samples of domestic and imported food were tested. Overall, 98.7 per cent were below Canada’s maximum residue limits for glyphosate, but this wasn’t the headline used in most new reports. 


Instead, reports tended to emphasize the 1.3 per cent of sample that were above the MRL and particularly the 3.9 per cent of grain samples that were higher. Most reports did not explain that on some grains, no MRL has been established, so the limit reverts to a very low level that in a few cases was exceeded.


The science around setting MRLs is complicated, but huge safety factors are incorporated. Generally speaking, MRLs are set with a safety factor of at least 100. When the vast majority of tests are below a very conservatively set MRL, it really is a good news story. 


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Missing and misaligned MRLs are a big problem in world trade. What’s deemed safe in one country may not be acceptable in another just because they haven’t done the scientific analysis.


Some headlines made it sound like the discovery of any residue, no matter how minute, should be a source for concern. A CBC report posted online contained the headline, “Nearly a third of food samples in CFIA testing contain gly-phosate residues.” Other reports emphasized that glyphosate had been found in more than 30 percent of infant foods.


It’s not at all surprising that glyphosate residues were discovered. Glyphosate has long been used as a pre-harvest aid. Spraying late in the season typically means a small but acceptable level of residue in the harvested production.


By comparison, a Roundup Ready crop sprayed with glypho-sate for weed control early in the growing season would be much less likely to leave a measurable residue. For glyphosate used for weed control before crop emergence, you would expect no residue.


Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and is the product most associated with Monsanto, one of the most vilified companies in the world. As a result, the herbicide receives a lot of attention from environmentalists and health advocates. 


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It’s important to keep studying the potential for long-term health issues, but it’s even more important to keep past reports in perspective. When some controversial scientific studies labelled glypho-sate “as probably carcinogenic to humans,” this was a hazard assessment rather than a risk assessment. 


Whether glyphosate might potentially cause cancer at some ridiculously high level of continuous exposure is dramatically different than real world exposure levels. 


Most of us drink coffee and consume caffeine at levels 100 times higher than the scientifically determined acceptable daily intake. Why then is such worry warranted over exposure to glyphosate that is 100 times lower than the acceptable daily intake?


Alas, it’s difficult to win scientific arguments with concerned consumers. They often don’t read beyond the headlines, and the headlines are designed to capture attention. Even when the overall news is positive, the information can be cast in a negative light.

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Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

  • Harold

    You should try to win a scientific argument with an unconcerned consumer if you think a concerned one is tough. The unconcerned are simply that: unconcerned; they don’t read or study at all. It is typical that the unconcerned or indoctrinated are accounted as the informed and should carry the weight of some your opinion. I can conclude that you only wish that I only read the headlines to favor your opinion but it is not so. It is also typical that one should run to a can of coffee to express glyphosate. Is coffee the reason to consume glyphosate? In your perceptive why aren’t the people of agriculture saying “Oh my God, this is good news”. I wonder why you don’t employ the same drama as you did with your other fictional group; because you couldn’t cast a sense of mental retardation had you not? Further, if “the science around setting MRLs is complicated” then how is it that you understand it? Do you have a legitimate reason for calling health scientists a much softer sound as is “health advocates”. Perhaps the country that rejects glyphosate hasn’t completed their scientific advocacy? Perhaps you can explain why I should eat a known weed killer at any level; is it because there is coffee in the market place or because other people smoke and I should too? I will say that you are correct in saying that it is hard to win a scientific argument with a concerned consumer and moreover, we haven’t even got out of the gate yet. What do you expect; a roll over and play dead like the unconcerned?

    • richard

      Its ironic that a highly paid caste of government employees can tell us to the nanoparticle what is not harming us…….However they have limited knowledge of what is ? Its no accident that seventy percent of global pharma sales are in North America….. watch CNN for one evening and you get the picture…..We are an unhealthy culture totally disconnected from the facts…..We cannot habitually hold up science as a panacea for objectivity when we deride the self same science for telling us what we don’t want to hear (that fifty percent of the food supply is contaminated with a xenobiotic substance)…. The fact that “science” cannot get to the core of what IS eroding human health can be a function of only two things……ignorance or apathy……..I don’t know or I don’t care…….And that is why a growing number of early adopters has rejected science pretense and chosen to rely on their gut instincts to tell them what is good for them……a simple process of elimination of hazards until “well being” has returned to their lives….and a logical explanation for why the “real food” market has achieved close to $100B USD sales globally…….Of course this is an affront for all that worship science as a panacea….but will inevitably continue to grow as vested interests continue telling us things that are perfectly true and totally useless…….

      • Harold

        It would be very helpful if people understood the difference between science and technology. Glyphosate is a peer reviewed technology and not a peer reviewed science. True science does not work for industry nor does it work for government. Human Biology does not work for industry and neither does it work for government. Technology is responsible for getting us sick. Science on the other hand is always at the edge of discovery or at the door of the unknown and nothing more. Those who peddle technology and claim it to be science are peddling deception. Those of technology cherry pick what science has discovered and in essence they cut a round hole from nature to create a square and hope it fits back into nature.
        All science aside, there is an ongoing attempt to gain control and ownership of all of the world’s food supply and that is the GE agenda; it is not the agenda of science. No one needs any scientific knowledge to understand that this action must be stopped.
        Re: CNN. Many years ago when I started doing research into news reporting, I discovered that all mainstream media is trash reporting. They never tell you what you need to know only what they want you to know. All of the reporting was skewed to support their narrative and did not reflect any true events. All mainstream is owned by 6 families and what they want to report is what you will see. I started to do the research after being at events, the mainstream news reporting of the same event was taken out of context and in some cases they out right lied. It was bitter sweet; bitter meaning that for many years I had trusted the three newspapers I read daily and the TV and discovered that I had been betrayed but sweet that I no longer trusted them and looked elsewhere. The other part of the Bitter is that I thought mainstream was saving me time but so untrusted I have to do all the time myself. If I were to watch CNN, I would have to do the hours to fact check them anyways. There are books for dummies and there is media that make people dummies.

        • richard

          Ignore the content, watch the advertising…. that’s the money trail. Nine out of ten ads are for pharma…. Disease is big business in the western world…..a big contributor to GDP. Its hardly surprising that our food safety regulators are so blasé about known issues with agritoxins and their chronic effects…..Economic growth is more important than human health….otherwise health care (disease mitigation) would not be the massive growth sector that it is……Growth in human disease is fundamental to economic growth…….and that’s just a cold hard perverted fact.

          • Harold

            The term disease means un-at-ease, dis-ease, and the major target of the TV advertising is to the mildly sick. The purpose of the Pharm ads is to persuade the public to trade food remedies for Pharm technology remedies; exchange Farm for Pharm. We know that if a person does not eat right then that person becomes ill-at-ease. The remedy is to correct the food and the body becomes at ease again. During the sickness we more so “fast” or drink more fluid or eat less and the body naturally purges out the bad food (toxin) and we become well again. Suffering the sickness demands knowledge of the cause and produces a change in food choices to prevent future re-occurrences. On the other hand, Pharm technology does not correct the food it only masks the symptoms caused by of the poor food. You “pop a magic pill” (technology- not science) the symptom goes away but the food choice remains undetectable and this protects poor food product and leads one into a false sense of well being. Some believe in Pharm unaware that the “Fast” is curing them and that the Pharm did not. This is how people become dependent on the Pharm and become chronic sufferers; the food remains undisclosed. Do Doctor’s (drug pushers) ever ask what you have been doing or what you have been eating in the past month? Pharm is not science it is technology and this is fully expressed by the list of side effects associated with each Pharm product. The side effects of good food are good health.
            Regarding the economy, no economy is built upon the sick; it is built upon the healthy. If this were not true Canada would be a rich country and the national debt is meaningless. (payable) The medical Industry lives in the most part as a consumer of taxes or charity runs, and the money comes from your pocket restricting your spending power in the real market place. (times 35. million Canadians)
            On a side note, if you look up pharmaceutical in the dictionary you will find that it means: to practice witchcraft.

          • Stephen Daniels

            You gotta wear a tinfoil hat when you espouse a conspiracy theory like that.

          • Harold

            The Hippocratic oath that the Doctor’s swear to comes from Hippocrates who said ….let medicine be thy food and let food be thy medicine …. and Hippocrates wasn’t wearing a “tinfoil hat” or part of any “conspiracy theory”. When Pharma showed up Hippocrates was outlawed and the doctors were forced to comply to the Pharma cures, but the oath should have changed at the same time to include the Pharma and to omit Hippocrates, but too revealing, it didn’t. Now the Hippocratic Oath is hypocrisy.
            A “tinfoil hat”? A conspiracy theory? Thanks for the adventure.

  • Stephen Daniels

    Yes special interest groups focus on one issue as though it’s a religion cherry pick studies scientific or not and try to scare the masses into agreeing with them.Never have I seen a study saying how many lives were saved from banning fluoride from drinking water.Remember the hundreds of thousands who were going to die cause of BSE tainted meat was there even one person who died in Canada?Media loves headlines and spin not so good on facts or risk comparison though.