Black huckleberries are ripening on local mountain slopes and this year’s crop looks very good.
Contrary to what you may have read in the Smithers Interior News or heard through the grapevine, berry picking is an excellent summer activity.
A June 3 article prepared by Priyanka Ketkar for the Lakes District News described UNBC research from cut blocks near Prince George and the Peace District showing that glyphosate herbicide residues can persist in the roots and fruits of wild berry plants for 12 or more years.
While the article was factual, the headline “Why wild berry picking might not be a great idea” was alarmist and lacked context for Smithers Interior News readers for the following reasons:
• Glyphosate-based herbicides have not been used to reduce competing vegetation on forestry cut blocks in the Bulkley and Kispiox Timber Supply Areas (west of Hungry Hill) for some 15-20 years. Prior to that their use was very rare.
For that, we can thank the tireless work of environmental activists such as Paul Glover and Josette Wier as well as opposition to pesticide use by regional First Nations.
• If you choose to pick black huckleberries or highbush (oval-leaved) blueberries east of Hungry Hill the risk of herbicide contamination is still very low.
These popular berry species typically grow in coniferous forest types that are unlikely to be sprayed because they lack aspen and their brush is not sufficiently dense to impede growth of planted trees.
• It is unlikely that berries picked in northern B.C. forests and cut blocks are less safe to eat than grocery store fruits grown in agricultural regions where there is heavy use of a wide array of pesticides and processed with a variety of chemical preservatives.
Many of us choose to pick other wild berry species such as Saskatoons, raspberries and wild strawberries close to home, along roadsides, back alleys, adjacent to powerlines, agricultural land and on private property.
On such lands there are no guarantees that the berries are not exposed to pesticides or other potentially toxic chemicals.
Each of us has our own tolerance of risk and some common sense is needed.
To sum up: Berry picking is a culturally important and fun intergenerational outdoor activity for Indigenous and non-indigenous residents of northern B.C.
It offers many physical and mental health benefits that, in my opinion, outweigh the small, possible risks of herbicide contamination.
Wild berries typically are lower in sugar and have higher levels of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory chemicals that protect against cancer, heart disease and diabetes than fruits purchased at the grocery store.
Smithers and Hazelton-area residents have nothing to fear if they harvest berries in local cut blocks on higher elevation forest lands away from utility corridors and roadsides.
That being said, it is an excellent idea to contact your MLA or BC’s Minister of Forests to let them know that it’s time to end herbicide spraying on BC’s public forest lands.
Sybille Haeussler, PhD, RPF, is a Smithers resident and adjunct professor of Ecosystem Science and Management at UNBC. She has no expertise in herbicide toxicology but has studied the effects of forestry practices on wild plants for over 40 years.