Beekeepers, grain farmers at odds over move to restrict neonics: Norfolk News

Norfolk News

Local beekeepers are applauding new provincial regulations that significantly limit the use of a class of agricultural pesticides blamed for increased bee mortality.

The rules, which came into effect July 1, require farmers to cut the use of corn and soybean seeds coated with nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids. If the new targets are met, the number of acres planted with these seeds will be reduced by 80 per cent by 2017.

“I’m kind of proud of the province being a leader in North America to recognize what is happening with neonics,” said local beekeeper David Bowen, president of the Haldimand Norfolk Beekeepers Association.

The move from Queen’s Park comes in response to sharp increases in bee mortality in the province, and a large body of scientific evidence linking the pesticides – which are also known as neonics – to declining populations of bees, butterflies and pollinator birds.

Based on the results of more than 1,000 international studies, scientists with the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides have concluded that neonics are a major factor in bee mortality. The pesticides disorient the bees, making it more difficult to navigate, forage for pollen and reproduce in the hives.

According to the task force, neonics are also finding their way into waterways, causing further damage to birds and aquatic species.

“Neonicotinoids weaken bees. It makes them stupid, and takes away their cognitive activities,” said Bowen, who saw three of the four hives on his Radical Road property fail over the winter of 2013-14, during which 58 per cent of Ontario’s honeybees died.

Fifteen per cent overwinter mortality is considered an acceptable level for maintaining healthy bee populations.

Bowen said one issue is that neonics permeate the entire plant, infecting the pollen that bees store in the hive and munch on all winter, slowly poisoning themselves.

“So they don’t die off right away, but they die over the winter,” he said. 

“Fifty-eight per cent of bees are gone in Ontario. It’s endemic.”

This past winter was even worse, he added, explaining that some local beekeepers have seen annual honeybee losses of 90 per cent. Those devastating results have driven many beekeepers out of the business altogether. 

“So many people have left beekeeping, it’s incredible,” said Bowen, whose association represents 45 of the roughly 100 beekeepers he estimates are still active in the area. 

“We’re obviously more than happy this (restriction) is happening,” he said, cautioning that beekeepers shouldn’t expect an immediate turnaround in hive health. 

“It’s not a ban. The government is saying, if you need it, you can use it, but only under strict conditions. It’s not going to be a next-year thing. It’s going to take a few years for this (pesticide) to get out of the environment.”

Neonics use is currently widespread, with the government estimating that almost all corn and 60 per cent of soybean crops in Ontario are grown with the pesticide.

Next year, under the new rules, farmers can use treated seeds on up to 50 per cent of their fields. By 2017, only farmers who can prove they have pests will be granted permission to use neonics-treated seeds.

The move earned the province kudos from environmental groups and support from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, whose president, Don McCabe, said his members “worked closely” with Queen’s Park to make sure the new regulations worked for farmers.

However, the restrictions have been vehemently opposed by CropLife Canada, an industry group that speaks for the companies that manufacture neonics, including Syngenta AG, Bayer AG and Dow Chemical Co. 

CropLife says neonics are safe for agricultural use and charge that other factors such as mites and disease are actually killing the bees.

The Grain Farmers of Ontario, a commodity group representing the province’s 28,000 corn, soybean and wheat farmers, also decried the move, arguing that putting a limit on neonics use would make it more difficult to grow corn and soybeans in Ontario.

In a statement, GFO chair Mark Brock called the new regulations “unworkable,” adding that targeting neonics alone will not benefit pollinators and will mean financial losses for farmers.

“Contrary to what some suggest, corn and soybean farmers do not support the new regulations,” Brock said.

Count Arpad Pasztor among the farmers who are opposed to limiting neonics use. 

Pasztor has been farming corn and soybean for close to 40 years. He currently has 600 acres of the two crops, plus another 60 acres of vegetables, on his Lakeshore Road farm, Hemlock Lakeview Farms Inc.

He said the province’s decision effectively hamstrings the many farmers who count on neonics to limit pests and make a living. 

“It’s just horrendous what’s going on here,” Pasztor said. “There’s no common sense at all.”

All the seeds he uses are treated with neonics, including his cucumber seeds.

“We pretty well have to (use neonics) here in Norfolk, on the sandy soil,” said Pasztor, explaining that when Norfolk’s famously sandy soil warms, it becomes a breeding ground for soil-borne insects and worms that eat away at crops’ root systems. 

Neonics ensure a strong root system by killing the pests, which Pasztor said has made a big difference in terms of corn yield over the past 20 years.

To determine just how much of a difference, Pasztor said he conducted an experiment. He said he planted a plot of corn using neonics-free seeds to compare yields with the rest of his crop.

Pasztor reported a 30 bushel per acre difference in yield – 180 bushels per acre using neonics, compared to 150 bushels per acre without.

“That 30 bushels per acre is what our profit margin is,” Pasztor said. Without using neonics, therefore, he’d just break even. 

“We may as well not grow anything,” he said. “I was almost thinking of selling and moving to the U.S., where you’ve got more freedom to farm as you want.”

Along with the economic argument, Pasztor said using neonics-coated seeds is much safer and healthier for humans than the toxic pesticides that used to be sprayed on corn and soybean fields.

He and other grain farmers are upset that instead of taking three years to come up with a comprehensive plan to address declining pollinator populations, the government has imposed this restriction on farmers after just one year.

This after farmers took steps to limit the amount of pesticide dust released by seeding machines. Pasztor thinks the province is acting in bad faith.

“To me, it’s not fair at all,” he said. “The government isn’t giving the GFO the chance to make their case. They’re only listening to the beekeepers.”

Bowen countered that the government is listening to the experts and looking to similar cases abroad.

“In Europe, they banned (neonics), and crops are not in trouble. In fact, corn yields are up,” he said.

He pointed to a draft report from the Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency that estimated reducing neonics would eat into farm revenues by 1.9 per cent, or about $91 million.

That’s in sharp contrast to a study commissioned by the pesticide industry that predicted losses of $880 million should neonics be banned.

CropLife and other opponents are “not acknowledging the volume of science that’s out there. They cherrypick – that’s what these big companies do,” Bowen said.

“CropLife is using the Grain Farmers of Ontario as a megaphone. The way they’re responding is the same denial patterns used with DDT, nicotine, smog, and now with climate change. All you have to do is confuse people – and if you confuse people, they can’t make a decision.”

The real confusion, Pasztor said, has to do with why bees are dying. He attributes the increase in bee mortality to farmers and beekeepers shipping their beehives to the Maritimes to pollinate blueberries, cranberries and the like before returning to work in Norfolk.

“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors here. The bees are being overused, overworked,” Pasztor said. “Myself and 99 per cent of the farmers are very concerned about the health of the bees. We need them. It’s part of nature.”

That bees come back from the Maritimes exhausted is a common misconception, Bowen said. He said bees actually return home stronger after buzzing about pollen-rich fields.

The beekeepers association has received plenty of support from Norfolk residents, said Bowen, including some 6,000 names on petitions collected at the Norfolk County Fair calling for a neonics ban. “And we’re in the heart of neonics country,” he said. “A huge part of the populace wants this looked at.”

Pasztor suspects that the new rules are simply a cash grab for the province. “All of a sudden we’ve got to take a course to learn how to use treated seed, which we’ve been using for 10 years.”

He is skeptical about the effectiveness of having inspectors visit farms and issue permits to use neonics based on evidence of pests.

“I don’t know how they’re going to go through that whole protocol – I’m not sure they know, either,” he said. “Is crop insurance going to pay us for the decrease in yield? Nobody knows that yet.”

Bowen pointed out that bees are needed on a large scale to pollinate crops worth roughly $900 million annually, along with making about $26 million of honey.

So, he said, it behooves all farmers to root for robust bee and pollinator populations.

“Don’t forget, beekeepers are farmers,” Bowen said. “We are extremely important to agriculture.”