By Dan Rankin
Earlier this month, the TVO current affairs program The Agenda with Steve Paikin dedicated an episode to the issue of pollinator health and neonicotinoids, speaking to scientists from York University, the leader of the province’s beekeeper’s association and Mark Brock, chair of Grain Farmer’s of Ontario.
Brock and Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) have filed court proceedings in the Ontario Court of Appeal, challenging the province’s regulations restricting the use of “neonic” pesticide on coated corn and soybean seeds. The GFO is hoping to delay the province’s implementation of the regulations which are designed to protect Ontario honey bees and other pollinators. Brock told Paikin that the new rules, which came into effect last July 1 and will gradually be phased in, could have “a significant impact on farms, with the replant costs, and having to deal with some of the plant loss that we would see.” Tibor Szabo, president of the Ontario Beekeeper’s Association, said over the winter of 2015 38 percent of honeybee colonies in Ontario perished, with 58 percent perishing the winter before that. “A normal percentage is in the 10-15 percent range,” he said. Szabo blamed the neonic neurotoxins for the loss of bees, saying “the explanation is the bees are picking up these neurotoxins from the wild plants surrounding the corn and soy fields, and off the corn pollen as well, and off the field water which they drink, and it’s impacting their ability to survive.”
This position has been backed by numerous scientific studies, as well as the David Suzuki Foundation, with Europe leading the way in ceasing to use three types of neonics on crops favoured by bees. Ontario was the first government in North America to restrict the use of seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, proposing to reduce their use by 80 percent by 2017. Now, a farmer has to demonstrate the need for these insecticides before they can be used. However, there have continued to be studies suggesting the impact of neonics has been exaggerated.
According to a story by the CBC last month, recent studies in the USA and Canada have shown that, at certain concentrations and when used on certain types of seeds including pumpkins, blueberries and corn, neonics pose no risk to honeybees. It is only at higher concentrations and when used on other types of crops, such as tomatoes and strawberries, that they pose a significant risk to bee populations. Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture has said that honey production has continued to improve, and the number of hives in the country has steadily increased for the past few years. In fact, they say the total number of beehives today is higher than it was in 1995 when neonics first arrived on the market.
Another piece, written for the Huffington Post by Jon Entine from the World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, points out that, since neonics were banned in Europe, farmers have begun replacing them with older, less-environmentally sound pesticides that are even worse for bees. Furthermore, in comparison to the States and western Canada (where neonics are used and honeybee populations are growing) European production of canola has seriously fallen, particularly in Germany and the UK.
Speaking about Ontario’s new regulations, Brock said they limit the province’s grain farmers’ ability to control pests, “because I have to prove need for it and it’s difficult to do that in some circumstances.”
Not only that, but “we’re not entirely sure that all the bee deaths can be correlated to the neonic seed treatment use,” he said.
“There is concern about pollinator health from everybody. As producers and farmers, we’re concerned about pollinator health as well,” said Brock, a corn, wheat and soybean farmer near Exeter. “We understand that the province feels the need to do something on this, and we were together with them on doing something, but the process and the speed at which it took place and the lack of consultation about the true impact to our farms, I don’t think really ever happened in a true way. So that’s why we bumped into this issue of having to take them to court.”
While the provincial government has said that only 20 percent of Ontario soil requires the use of neonics to fight pests, Brock said that doesn’t help farmers such as himself, whose entire acreage is made up of that type of soil. “We used [neonic-treated seeds] this past year on 100 percent of our corn acres and 75 percent of our soybean acres,” he said. “We’ve taken steps to put deflectors on our planter, to mitigate any risk to pollinators and to follow the best management practices brought forward by the Pest Regulatory Management Agency that registers chemical products for us in Canada.”
He said grain farmers understand that neonics can be very toxic for bees, but, “it’s not a lethal dose that bees are seeing in our fields, from some of the studies that we’ve seen.”
“We’re confident that, if we take the best management practices that we need, we should mitigate some of these bee losses,” he said. “We’ve seen a decline from 2013 to 2015 of 80 percent so I think we’re taking the right steps.”
Instead, due to new regulations, Brock estimates it will cost him $5 per acre to bring in a professional to monitor his soil. “I’m a price-taker with commodities,” he said. “I can’t say, ‘okay, I have a new cost with my operation. Now I’m going to pass it onto the consumer.’ It’s harder for me to recoup those extra costs.”
As for the case against the provincial government, Brock said “it’s not something we as an organization wanted to take on but with pressure from farmers and our members, it seemed to be our last resort and that’s why we went through with it.”
In spite of this example, he said there are “good healthy relationships,” between the government and farmers. “I think we’ll work through this issue and move on to other things,” he said. “We have to do more as farmers to educate consumers and government about the practices we do on our farm, how we’ve innovated over time and how we are further innovating, and help them come along with us on the journey so they understand the process better.”
The Ontario Court of Appeal will hear the appeal by Grain Farmers of Ontario on March 9. At that time, the organization also hopes to have the court hear a request for a stay on the regulations and interpretation of the regulations. They will post regular updates on the issue at GFO.ca/protectingpollinators.