The Gleaner
Agriculture

Franklin farm worker’s illness brings pesticide dangers to light

There is a new official health danger and financial liability for farmers using certain pesticides and herbicides.

The Tribunal administratif du travail (TAT), the board that rules on labour law disputes in Quebec, has officially linked certain pesticides and herbicides to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a treatable but potentially lethal blood cancer. This means that employers, especially if they aren’t diligent about regulations, could be held responsible for the expenses of employees who fall victim to this disease.

This link is the first to be made in Canada, and it happened because of the case of Armando Lazo Bautista, who worked on the Vergers Ivanhoë Faille apple and blueberry farm in Franklin. It follows on the heels of the TAT’s recognition of the connection between pesticide use and Parkinson’s disease in 2019, and it makes Quebec the second jurisdiction worldwide (after France) to make this danger official.

It means that people who use certain chemicals on Quebec farms and who afterwards develop these diseases can apply for workman’s compensation. Unfortunately, this financial help from the workman’s compensation commission (CNESST) does not include farmer-owners or employers who are not paying into the system for themselves.

On the one hand, this ruling should make farmers with employees become more stringent about following the often difficult and time-consuming guidelines surrounding the use of chemicals like Roundup (glyphosate), Gramoxone (paraquat), or Manzate (mancozeb). It should also perhaps inspire them to look for alternatives.

The three products named above are typical examples of chemicals commonly used by conventional apple and blueberry producers in the Valley. Glyphosate is linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as to the frightening collapse of many insect populations like butterflies and crickets because it destroys or poisons their food sources. Several farmers told The Gleaner they thought paraquat was banned: it’s not. Canada and the U.S. are two rare countries who continue to allow the use of this dangerous herbicide that requires a full respirator to apply as it can destroy the lungs on contact.

In a press release published on biologicaldiversity.org, paraquat is also linked to Parkinson’s disease and is listed as one of the most “acutely lethal” agricultural chemicals in the world. As for the fungicide mancozeb, the material safety data sheet for the product lists it as “extremely toxic to the marine environment” – and to beneficial insects, like the bees that pollinate the apple trees upon which it is used.

The proven dangers of chemicals that can destroy insects and all green plants lie behind the decisions of many farmers in the region to go organic. While pointing out that a change to organic methods is much easier for smaller producers than larger ones (who might be obliged to change all their machinery as well), organic grower Ian Ward of Les Jardins Glenelm says, “The first year of farming we had a six-month-old when our radishes came up; he pulled one and took a bite. I think it was the first solid food he ever ate. I thought, ‘Boy, am I glad we’re organic.’ No worries about pesticide contamination.”

The real reason for concern, as pointed out in the TAT decision, is the fact that although these products are licensed for use here, “There is not much verification being done by Health Canada,” says Ward. He adds that as far as he knows, “They don’t check to see if they’re being used properly, largely because it would cost enormous amounts of resources to do that.”

Several previous cases like the one in Franklin failed to come down in favour of the worker. However, the author of the article in the UPA’s La Terre de Chez Nous, Caroline Moreau, says, “Without making a direct link between the pesticides and Armando Lazo Bautista’s medical condition, the court does not rule out a possible correlation between the two, and considers that the worker did not have sufficient protection while working on the farm, although his employer pleaded the contrary.”

The MAPAQ sent The Gleaner a list of the many courses, rules, and guidelines it recommends to fruit growers. It also mentions the 45-hour course that is required for farmers to be certified and able to buy these potentially dangerous materials. However, science keeps identifying more dangers in the use of these chemicals.

This is echoed by the MAPAQ agronomist at the centre of a scandal in 2019 that cost the then Quebec minister of agriculture his job. Louis Robert blew the whistle on the connection between many agronomists’ advice to their clients and their closeness to the chemical companies making the pesticides. He was fired when scandal ensued, but was reinstated due to the province’s 2017 whistleblower protection act. He remains one of the few agronomists today who will discuss such issues publicly.

Robert echoes Ward’s point, and adds, “Responsibility for change should go up the whole line, from the chemical industry and the agronomists and sellers to the farmers.” Canada in general uses an industry-controlled approach, in which “The company developing a pesticide itself decides on these instructions and precautions. The agronomists don’t want to carry any needless risks themselves, so they will refer the farmers to these instructions.” Studying these is time-consuming, and “If a farmer feels his crop really has to be treated today because of weather or whatever, he’s going to rush and spray – possibly against the instructions on the labels.”

Held to account

“We will see more and more of these cases,” Robert says – cases where farmers are held to account for poor use. As for the responsibility of the agronomists, “This decision might make them more cautious. Between the private agronomist and the farmer, there is a trust and confidence, almost a complicity. Most agronomists can’t afford to lose clients, so I think they tend to adopt the point of view of their clients.”

Many farmers are trying to reduce chemical use; Ward says that when big operations manage to even slightly lower their chemical footprints, for example by using milder products or planting windbreaks, “The ecosystem advantages that provides are amazing. The government doesn’t care much what small farms are doing; they’re trying to target the big farms that are doing much less, because they have such a big effect even with small changes.” He adds, “There’s huge potential for improvements in both organic and conventional crop production if we all row in the same direction. I know a lot of conventional farmers doing really good work!”

But there are those for whom the incentive for change would have to come through the regulators. Ivanhoë Faille says, “As long as it’s legal, I will do the same thing I’ve always done, that my father’s done.”

A wake-up call

Robert, who has worked as an agronomist for 40 years, notes that “Some farmers are fully aware; some act like it’s still the fifties. The more they follow the advice of company reps, the more dangerous their usage can be.” He explains that many only “have an agronomist on paper,” and, once they have their training, rely on their retailer for advice – a retailer who buys and sells according to the advice of company representatives.

Robert agrees that the decision by the TAT is a positive step in the direction of a definitive response by provincial regulators to the dangers of some agricultural chemicals. However, he says that “The most important impact on [both farmers and] agronomists will come from the general public. This is a wake-up call for everybody: farmers, agronomists, and the general public. The message is: the risks of pesticide use are true and genuine, so we have to be very, very careful.”

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