Study looks at impact of herbicide on traditional plants in boreal forests

Labrador tea leaves.

Athabasca University researchers partner with Bigstone Cree Nation to study impact of glyphosate on Labrador tea

(AU) – For the past 15 years, Bigstone Cree Nation Elder Helen Noskiye has operated a trap line in the boreal forest in northern Alberta, in an area north of Chipewyan Lake near the Wabasca River.

Dr. Srijak Bhatnagar.

In that time, logging companies have cleared a lot of timber and reforested vast stretches of land. They spray the herbicide glyphosate broadleaf plants and shrubs to help newly planted trees thrive. This spraying includes traditional plants and medicines such as Labrador tea, chokecherries, and raspberries, which have been consumed for generations by the sakawiyiniwak, or Northern Bush Cree.

“Once they do the spraying, people can’t pick the berries anymore because it’s poisonous,” Noskiye said. “There’s nothing trappers can do because the companies overrule them, I guess.”

Researchers Dr. Srijak Bhatnagar and Dr. Janelle Baker are leading a study with members of Bigstone Cree Nation to better understand the impact of glyphosate on the health of Labrador tea.

Labrador tea an important traditional medicine

 This important traditional food and medicine is used to treat ailments like headaches, inflamation, asthma, and heart problems.

Combining Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and lab-based research, the team is addressing long-standing concerns in the community about industry’s impact on traditional food sources.

Dr. Janelle Baker

“This is research that will be directly useful to other First Nations with the same concerns—which are a lot of them,” said Baker, an assistant professor and cultural and environmental anthropologist in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Microbes yield clues about health of organisms

To understand how glyphosate affects traditional plants, the team will look at which microbes are present in the roots of Labrador tea, which grows throughout the boreal forest in northern Canada.

“Every living thing has microbes. We have microbes living in our skin, in our mouth, in our gut. These plants also have microbes living everywhere,” explained Bhatnagar, an assistant professor of computational biolog in the Faculty of Science and Technology.

The research team is working with Traditional Knowledge Keepers in Bigstone Cree Nation to identify microbes present on plants found in treated compared to those found in untreated areas. Bhatnagar said existing research has found the presence of glyphosate in berries foraged in boreal regions.

“We know from other plants that the herbicide affects the microbial community of the plant that in turn can negatively affect the health of the plant,” he said.

Does glyphosate in Labrador tea affect human health?

The study will also look at how consuming Labrador tea could affect human health. Collaborators at McMaster University will expose human cells grown in Petri dishes to teas from plants gathered in both sprayed and unsprayed areas.

“They will expose those cells to the teas brewed in the traditional way,” Bhatnagar said. “Basically we’re going to try to see if glyphosate can be detected.”

He said the team chose to study Labrador tea because of the community concerns, but also because it’s so common throughout boreal forests. The team hopes the results can be used as a model for understanding the implications of glyphosate for other plants and other communities.

Implications for truth and reconciliation

The results of the study could have broader implications for reforestation practices—and for truth and reconciliation in Canada, said Baker. She has worked extensively with Bigstone Cree Nation and other Indigenous communities to study industrial contamination of traditional foods and water sources.

Plants like Labrador tea, fireweed, and chokecherry are common throughout the boreal forest and are classified as weeds. So when former industrial sites are reforested, companies fail to recognize the cultural value of these plants, she said.

“If we really want to have truth and reconciliation, we need to start paying attention to Indigenous Laws and Indigenous Systems of how to interact with these species.”

The research is being funded in part through a New Frontiers in Research Fund 2022 Exploration grant, overseen by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

1 Comment on "Study looks at impact of herbicide on traditional plants in boreal forests"

  1. Elise Neumann | June 4, 2024 at 11:04 am | Reply

    Important research and I’m interested in hearing the results! I’m curious about the statement in the article, “Plants like Labrador tea, fireweed, and chokecherry are common throughout the boreal forest and are classified as weeds.” I don’t believe these species are classified as weeds under the Weed Control Act in Alberta, where Bigstone Creek Nation is located, so these species do not need to be controlled. Perhaps the writer meant they are not “desirable” so less likely to be planted or encouraged to establish on reclaimed sites.

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