BRANDON — Canadians are struggling to sell organic food and grains into Europe, even though it’s the world’s second largest market.
That’s because Europeans are finding trace amounts of glyphosate in organic shipments from Canada.
“Many of the containers of grains that arrive in Europe are being rejected because of glyphosate contamination,” said Laura Telford, organic development specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.
“It was always a strong market for us, and it is certainly collapsing.”
Losing the European market is significant because it has traditionally been a major destination for Canadian flax, lentils and other organic commodities.
Telford, who spoke at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon Jan. 24, said Europe’s zero tolerance for glyphosate residues is troublesome for Canada’s organic sector because other buyers are adopting similar positions on the herbicide.
“It is popping up in Asian markets. Last year we saw a big loss of our hemp market in Taiwan or South Korea,” she said.
“The main opportunities for Asian and European markets are for (organic) farmers who have lower risk of glyphosate contamination.”
Folks in Canada’s organic sector aren’t sure how glyphosate is getting into organic crops. A possible culprit is pre-harvest spraying of glyphosate on conventional crops.
“Your neighbour on the Prairies is a mainstream farmer and they’re using glyphosate as a desiccant,” Telford said.
Stuart McMillan, an organic inspector and farm manager of Legend Organic Farms in eastern Saskatchewan, said there are other possible sources.
One is dust and the other is rain.
“The big mechanism … is it’s going to be coming from glyphosate bound to soil particles — so, flying dust drift,” he said.
“(And) you can also measure in Canada glyphosate levels in rain. They’re very low, but (it’s) there.”
However, it’s unlikely that organic farmers are using glyphosate to control weeds, McMillan said.
“The levels coming up are not consistent with intentional fraud. If you’re intentionally using glyphosate, your levels should be significantly higher.”
McMillan wasn’t sure about the maximum residue levels for organic grain in Europe. He’s heard anything above 0.01 parts per million is a concern for buyers.
In Canada, the MRL for glyphosate is three p.p.m. in conventional flaxseed, four p.p.m. in lentils and 10 p.p.m. in barley.
So, the European number could be 400 times lower than the Canadian standard for lentils.
“They actually specify what we think is an un-measurable threshold,” Telford said. “That, we think, is below detection.”
Europeans have been particularly sensitive about glyphosate since 2015, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded the herbicide is probably carcinogenic to humans.
Hundreds of scientists and regulatory bodies, such as Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority, have challenged the IARC scientists and their conclusion, saying the methodology was biased and flawed.
“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,” Health Canada said earlier in January.
European rejection of Canadian organic grains may not be about glyphosate, Telford said. The Europeans could be using it as a non-tariff trade barrier.
“I think a lot of that is really trade protectionism,” she said, noting the rejection of organic grains has sent a “chill” through the North American marketplace.
A number of organic exporters are turning away from Europe because it’s not worth the hassle, McMillan said.
“It’s increased the burden of testing, the cost of testing,” he said.
“Some people have just said, ‘forget it, let’s find a different market.’ ”
The extreme caution over glyphosate residues is out of whack because organic is not a guarantee of purity, McMillan added.
Expecting every shipment of organic grain to contain zero glyphosate and other pesticides is not realistic.
“I cannot put a bubble over my farm,” he said. “I can’t control the rain. I can’t control dust. Why should I be penalized?”