Consultation on Targeted Review of Pesticides Act: Improved Transparency

This post is about providing comments on the second objective of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency’s (PMRA’s) consultation on the “Targeted Review” of the Pest Control Products Act (PCPA).

In Summer, 2021, there was public outcry to proposed increases to “maximum residue limits” of pesticides in food, and this consultation (set out in Discussion Document 2022-01) is the result. The extended deadline for comments is June 30, 2022.

Below at the heading “Objective 2 – Improved Transparency” are our comments on the second objective. Our thoughts on the third and last objective, “Increased Use of Real-word Data and Independent Advice/Evidence” are forthcoming.

Background: By way of background, Discussion Document 2022-01 sets out 3 objectives, and asks for answers to questions on each. The list is in Annex 3. The first objective, “Modernized Business Processes”, which had questions on setting MRLs and “Continuous Oversight”, was discussed in our previous post.

Although this consultation is on a “Targeted Review” of the PCPA, PMRA says it will also take comments on the full Act, since the full PCPA currently stands referred to Parliament for a broader legislative review.  A main point that is being missed in the “targeted review” is that risk assessments should focus on the ENTIRE pest control product (PCP) including all ingredients, not just the “active” ingredient, which is what the current approach is.

Why? Because we are exposed to the entire product (not just the one ingredient) in the “real world” – also because some of these ingredients are actually more toxic than the active ingredient, or render the active ingredient more harmful than it would otherwise be.

Send your comments on the consultation:

By email to PMRA Publications:  pmra.publications-arla@hc-sc.gc.ca

Identify Discussion Document 2022-01

Provide: your full name and organization; phone number; mailing or emailing address.

Consider: cc’ing us at SafeFoodMatters@gmail.com

OR: Use the Consultation Comment Form

Fundamental Point: on the standard for comments: The main objective of the PCPA is to protect human health and the environment from the risks of pesticides (sec 4). Secondary objectives are: support sustainable development; develop innovative, sustainable pest management strategies through lower risk pesticides and other measures; only approve PCPs that are of value.

If a “Targeted Review” proposal aligns with these objectives, it is good. If it doesn’t, it is out of scope.

Below is a brief description of the second Objective and related questions of the consultation, and some suggested responses. Please revise, amend, or create your own responses as you see fit. PMRA is listening, so now is the time.

Objective 2 – Improved transparency

Question: Would introducing plain language summaries of our pesticide decisions, as well as more plain language information on how we conduct our science, improve transparency?

Response: The reason “Transparency” is important is that public understanding of what PMRA is doing is required so that the public can hold PMRA accountable for its decisions. The public needs explanations about HOW PMRA came to its decision, and what reasoning went into those decisions, rather than plain language explanations of the conclusions or approaches uses. PMRA should give the public the details on the specific science reviewed and judgements made based on that science, rather than “dumbing it down” in “plain language” summaries that do not provide the required information.

PMRA’s decisions impact public health and the environment. Under the scheme of the PCPA, the public has a critical role to play as a participant in pesticide decision making; and this role is to hold the PMRA accountable for its decision making that affects human health and the environment. This role cannot be fulfilled unless the public has full access to the thinking and information reviewed, considered and relied upon in the decision-making process.

It is important to understand that transparency is about “accountability” of the regulator to the people and beings impacted by the regulators decisions, not about engendering a sentiment of “trust” in the regulator. (Many of the communications from PMRA are boilerplate paragraphs that say “Just Trust Us”).

The science relied upon by PMRA and the decision making based on that science needs to be made clear. Currently PMRA, at most, lists the studies it considered.  More is needed. PMRA  should explain the literature and scientific reviews it conducted, why certain certain studies were favoured over others, what PMRA understood as the finding of these studies, and how these particular studies impacted the risk conclusion drawn by PMRA – what weight they were given and why.

The public needs to be able to see what PMRA sees and thinks.

Question: What information would you most need to access, why, and how could that information be best made available to you?

Response: The scientific literature and studies relied upon by PMRA should be made available, on a timely basis, as well as the reasoning of PMRA based upon this information (as described in greater detail above). 

Links to the actual literature and studies should be provided immediately, without members of the public having to ask for them.  A matrix should be developed to explain the selection process, weighting and decision taken with respect to the information.

Engagement of the public is critical for accountability, and members of the public are not compensated for their contribution. People have lives, and any delay in the provision of information by PMRA required for comments, and even the delay required in requesting the information, has proved to be a real impediment to providing comments.

PMRA can sometimes take months to respond in any meaningful way to relevant questions and requests, which stymies the entire process.

Also extensions are granted to people who request more time because of the delayed provision of information which should have been publicly accessible in the first place, and this is in inequitable. If there is a delay in the provision of information to one person and that person is provided an extension for commenting, then the information should be provided to all and the comment period for all should be extended.

Question: What barriers exist in the Pest Control Products Act to increasing access to information, considering our obligations to protect CBI and our international commitments?

Response: The presumption should be that information that relates to pesticides should be made public. Accessibility to such information is required to ensure accountability for sound decision-making, as described above. Any provisions in the PCPA that block access to such information should be removed, unless a legitimate, current commercial interest that can be shown to override the public interest in accessibility can be established by the commercial party. An approach more akin to “Vanessa’s Law” is favoured.

Both confidential business information and confidential test data should be defined narrowly, so that they attract the designation of confidentiality only if the party seeking confidentiality can show that disclosure poses a real and substantial risk to their commercial interests. The law presumes that disclosure is in the public interest as it relates to protection of the environment and health, and this generally overrides the importance of any commercial interest.

The party would have to show that the risk claimed is real and substantial, in that the risk is well grounded in evidence, and poses a serious threat to the commercial interest in question. It would also have to prove to PMRA that the commercial interest is important ie. it can be expressed in terms of a general public interest principle for maintaining confidentiality. 

If these tests are met, then the information can be protected from full public disclosure, but measures that protect the confidentiality should be put in place to allow for disclosure on a protected basis, given the importance of disclosure to the public interest. For example, the information can be disclosed in a virtual reading room.

PMRA has not been clear about what “international commitments” for protecting confidentiality are. No such obligations are set out in the PCPA.

Question: How can PMRA improve the approach to consultation with the public on regulatory decisions?

Response: A member of the public wants to understand that PMRA heard and considered their comments.  Development of a system that allows PMRA to show it heard the comment and considered it, and that supplies reasons to support this, would be an improvement.

Some thoughts on improving the approach are:

  • PMRA seems to define the “public” as certain environmental NGOs it has had interacted with on the past, and those who have signed up for news letters. This presumes that these NGOs actually represent the public, which is not necessarily true. A process that allows PMRA to extend beyond this narrow scope might allow PMRA to engage with other concerned members of the public.
  • Don’t provide answers to comments that are from the perspective of “Just Trust Us”, as described above. Perhaps develop a process that allows public comments to be discussed and thought about, and then responded to.
  • On issues for which PMRA may not have an immediate answer and that raise good points, PMRA should develop a process that allows for future consideration of these points and that involves the members of the public concerned into the future discussion on these points. They likely raise issues about risks that PMRA may not have considered, and should be addressed proactively.
  • The public will “trust” a regulator that is willing to consider new information and allow for changes in science and approach, at least more than a regulator that just provides boilerplate answers to concerns raised by public citizens who believe in the process. Engaging the public in these changes is key.

Conclusion: Transparency is about giving members of the public full access to the information seen by PMRA when making its decision, and allowing members of the public to understand PMRA’s reasoning in making its decision. This allows for a system in which PMRA can explain, respond to and be accountable to the public about its decisions. Such accountability engenders trust.

Engaged members of the public include scientists, environmentalists, eaters, pesticide applicators, agronomists, and many others who care about pesticide risks. “Just Trust Us” is not good enough any more.

Only with full information and understanding can members of the public engage in the decision making process and serve as an accountability check on the decisions made by PMRA – whose decisions impact our lives and health profoundly.

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