Biodiversity loss at the heart of climate crisis

 Removing vegetation for urban development, spraying herbicides, mowing lawns, and clear-cutting forests all destroy plants and the food webs they support.
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Instead of honouring green plants as our greatest living allies in the fight against runaway climate change, we treat them like the enemy.  

Canada’s forests – until recently one of the world’s great carbon sinks – are now net emitters of carbon dioxide and sources of urban air pollution.

Developers clear forests in defiance of municipal by-laws. Forests are burning at unprecedented rates. Wildfire smoke fills cities. Health officials recommend curtailing outdoor activities.

In Stopping the Rain of Death on Canada’s Forests, Joyce Nelson described the plight of Indigenous communities who oppose forestry herbicide use because it impacts their rights to hunt, fish, gather berries, and use plant medicines.

A recent Sierra Club blog post  lists industry names for glyphosate herbicides approved for spraying in forests: Shotgun, Flame, Renegade, Destroyer, Disruptor, and Mad Dog. Their use does not provide the basis of a respectful relationship between humans and the natural environment.

Glyphosate is by far Canada’s most widely used pesticide, used to control weeds in farmlands planted with genetically modified food crops, as well as in forests planted with commercially valuable conifers. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has registered Destroyer, Mad Dog, Disrupter et al. to kill “unwanted” forest vegetation. This term includes deciduous trees such as aspens that resist wildfires.

A 2019 review of glyphosate use in British Columbia reads:

“In summer, deciduous stands moderate microclimates, inhibit wind movement, help maintain lower air temperature and higher humidity, and maintain soil and surface fuel moisture longer into the fire season when compared to conifer-dominated stands… The physical properties of aspen, in particular, resist intense fire behaviour, which makes it a popular choice for fuel treatments in the wildland–urban interface throughout North America.”

Killing fire-resistant deciduous trees with herbicides increases the probability that human settlements will burn and brings on ever more frequent episodes of poor air quality. Urban Canadians are experiencing first-hand the health risks of indiscriminate glyphosate use.

These risks also include contamination of our food supply.  A May 2023 article by Stephen Wentzell points out that glyphosate exposure can lead to pancreatitis, liver and kidney diseases, and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Target 7 of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework calls on Canada and other parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to “reduce pollution risks and the negative impact of pollution from all sources by 2030,” including “by reducing the overall risk from pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals by at least half.”

Intense lobbying pressure from chemical manufacturers has Canada headed in the opposite direction.  In a June 13th media release, the Canadian Environmental Law Association says “By approving a deeply disappointing Bill S-5 (amending the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 or “CEPA”) this week, Parliament has missed a critical opportunity to protect Canadians and nature from toxic substances and genetically modified organisms.”

The following week, at a June 20th technical briefing, Health Canada announced that it will allow certain pesticide residues in food to increase. ENGO push-back had forced Health Canada to “pause” its proposed changes to “Maximum Residue Limits.”

Health Canada’s most controversial proposal would facilitate the ongoing spraying of glyphosate just before harvest to dry out crops such as wheat, oats, barley and beans.  This practice leaves high pesticide residues in food. Health Canada says it will continue to study this “complex” issue but will now make changes allowing other pesticide residues to increase.

People see climate change as the overriding health concern, but it is completely intertwined with pollution and biodiversity loss. Removing vegetation for urban development, spraying herbicides, mowing lawns, and clear-cutting forests all destroy plants and the food webs they support. This disrupts ecosystem functions such as carbon sequestration and cycling of water and makes climate-induced weather disasters more likely and more severe.

Prompt action to restore ecosystems and conserve biodiversity would go a long way towards reversing this downward spiral. The Convention on Biological Diversity has prepared detailed guidance for each of 23 targets agreed last December in Montreal.

Environment and Climate Change Canada is soliciting comments from Canadians through an online survey for a 2030 national biodiversity strategy.

Corporate control of key ministries such as Health Canada means that prospects for effective national action are dim. But don’t give up. Fill out the survey.

Other small steps such as allowing vegetation to grow on your own property will increase the quality of life for you and others in your community, now and in the future.

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