When the Manitoba government announced its cosmetic pesticide use ban late last month, the headline for the news release said the ban is about saving children.
Specifically, it said the ban would “protect children from the risks of chemical lawn pesticides,” while the news release said it would prevent “some of our most vulnerable populations, especially children, from getting sick.”
Keystone Agricultural Producers president Doug Chorney said the emotional tone and content of the announcement were surprising and offensive to farmers who oppose the ban.
“The way they rolled this media conference out, with doctors and stuff, it seems if you’re against this (pesticide ban) it would be like saying you’re in favour of poisoning children.”
Manitoba plans to ban the use of pesticides on lawns, gardens, school grounds, playing fields, health-care centres and other public property. Golf courses and agricultural land are exempt.
The ban is expected to take effect December 2014.
KAP has campaigned against a provincial ban on pesticides since early last year, when the government first announced it was considering such a policy.
The farm lobby group and the Manitoba Canola Growers Association are concerned about weeds spreading onto agricultural land. They have also said public policy on pesticides should be based on scientific evidence. In other words, the province shouldn’t claim pesticides are a threat to human health if Health Canada has found that they are safe if used properly.
Chorney didn’t cite particular comments from the news conference, but the tone of the event could be conveyed by the words of Adrienne Percy, founder of the Concerned Mothers’ Coalition of Manitoba.
“As a mother, I want peace of mind that the simple act of playing outdoors won’t increase my children’s risk of cancer or respiratory problems. I want to live in a province that is progressive and brave enough to keep our children safe.”
Joe Schwarz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society, said it’s nearly impossible to defend chemicals against such emotional arguments.
“I wish I had the answer to that, but after nearly 40 years of experience in this business, I can tell you that emotion sways people more than science,” said Schwarz.
“It’s not that it isn’t a level playing field, we (defenders of science) aren’t even on the same playing field.”
Farrah Khan, spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said the justification for the Manitoba ban isn’t grounded in emotion. It’s about protecting children because the science shows that pesticides are a threat to kids.
“You might think of it as an emotional argument, but I don’t see it that way at all,” she said.
“The science points to children … because they are smaller, they are more vulnerable to getting affected by these chemical pesticides. They’re at a stage in their life where they are developing … and that’s why the science shows that kids are most at risk.”
Khan said risks associated with lawn and garden pesticides are simply too high.
“If the benefit is just to remove a few dandelions from your lawn, but you’re risking potentially giving your kid asthma or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or cancer in some cases, we don’t think the benefits outweigh the risks.”
Schwarz said he understands that many Canadians have no tolerance for risk when it comes to chemicals, but conspiracy theories involving the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which reviews the safety of herbicides and insecticides, are unfounded.
“The PMRA, contrary to what the activists promote, is not some sort of rogue organization that is in cahoots with medical associations and the government (to) undermine our health.”
Besides emotion and a general distrust of scientific institutions, Schwarz said messaging plays a significant role in public perceptions of pesticides.
“In the public eye, things become true by repetition,” he said.
“(If) you repeat the idea that pesticides are killing our children often enough, then people, of course, start to get anxious.”