By Matt McIntosh
What has to happen before a pesticide can be used in Canada.
Pesticides are important tools used in agriculture to protect crops and allow for more food to be produced. But before any pesticide is ever used by a farmer it goes through a rigorous review process to ensure it is safe for people and the environment.
What the approval process looks like can vary from place to place. In Canada, it starts with the federal government.
What are pesticides?
The word “pesticide” mainly refers to three categories of chemicals—fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides. The first is used to stop the spread of fungal pathogens, the second gets rid of crop-damaging insects, while the latter is used to keep weeds out of the field.
Products used to kill rodents (rodenticides) as well as antimicrobials and sanitizers also fall under the pesticide heading. But by comparison, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides tend to be a more common topic of discussion when it comes to food and farming.
The use and availability of pesticides is regulated by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA). The PMRA must deem products safe for people and the environment before farmers can use them.
What it takes to be approved
The Canadian approval process doesn’t happen overnight. Before a pesticide product can be purchased and used by the public, the PMRA conducts scientific reviews and safety assessments to ensure the product in question does not violate safety standards set by Health Canada.
The PMRA has one of the most rigorous scientific evaluation processes in the world. It subjects pesticides to a comprehensive scientific review and risk assessment, which includes more than 200 separate studies for health and environmental impacts before approving products for sale and use in Canada. Products are then continually assessed to make sure they meet the latest scientific standards.
Health Canada employs more than 300 scientists who review pesticide applications. Tests conducted on pesticides must be done under an internationally-accepted standard for good laboratory practices to ensure the information generated paints a true picture of the product.
The testing requires significant time and resource commitments on the part of pesticide developers. It takes between four and five years to screen new chemicals for their potential effectiveness and safety, another three to four years for subsequent research, then a one to two-year evaluation period. If the product in question is approved by the government at the end of that time, the developer can start marketing it.
Recurring reviews of approved products occur at minimum every fifteen years to account for new scientific information, though earlier reviews are also possible if a significant risk comes to light. Regulations also dictate that approved pesticides be accompanied by very specific information about the product, including what amount of it should be used and how it should be applied. Farmers must follow these instructions to ensure they protect their crops without damaging them or the wider environment.
Health Canada provides more detailed information about the entire process, and how it assesses potential health risks on its website. There are also answers to frequently asked questions pertaining to the PMRA: how it works, considerations made, and so on.
Provincial and territorial governments are involved in pesticide regulations in a number of different ways: issuing pesticide use permits; imposing additional restrictions on pesticide use; regulating the transportation, sale, storage and disposal of pesticides; and regulating the training, certification and licensing of pesticide applicators and vendors. In Ontario, for example, anyone wishing to purchase and use pesticides (e.g. farmers and landscapers) has to take – and pass – a safety course. This entitles them to hold a pesticide applicators licence for a set period of time.
Some municipalities have chosen to enact bylaws restricting pesticide use in their jurisdictions, though these decisions tend to be in contradiction with the science-based decisions made by Health Canada.