Grain News: Ontario proposes deep cuts for farmers' neonic use by 2017

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Ontario’s new goal to ban most use of neonicotinoid pesticides in corn and soybean crops by 2017 has yielded bouquets from the province’s beekeepers – but left crop growers feeling stung.

Following up on Premier Kathleen Wynne’s orders to her agriculture and environment ministers in their mandate letters in September, the province on Tuesday announced it will consult on a plan to drastically cut use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed.

The proposal, if approved in the legislature, would see new rules on the use of the “neonic” seed treatments in place by July 1 next year, ahead of the 2016 planting season.

The province’s goals, announced Tuesday, are an 80 per cent reduction in the number of acres planted with neonic-treated corn and soybean seed by 2017; a honeybee overwintering mortality rate of just 15 per cent by 2020; and development of a “pollinator health action plan.”

“Improving pollinator health is not a luxury but a necessity. Pollinators play a key role in our ecosystem and without them, much of the food we eat would not be here,” provincial Environment Minister Glen Murray said in a release.

“Taking strong action now to reduce the use of neurotoxic pesticides and protecting pollinator health is a positive step for our environment and our economy.”

A bee mortality rate of 15 per cent is considered “acceptable and sustainable” by beekeepers, the province said.

The province said it has released a discussion paper on pollinator health for comment over 60 days on its Environmental and Regulatory Registries, and has consultation sessions planned for December 2014 and January 2015.

Ontario Beekeepers’ Association president Tibor Szabo said Tuesday the group “appreciates the government’s recognition that the prophylactic use of neonicotinoid-coated seed on Ontario’s corn and soy crops is unwarranted and unacceptable.”

The OBA has said claims for bee kills in Ontario due to neonic use have been “confirmed” by Health Canada for both 2012 and 2013, and that overwinter losses of 58 per cent, over three times the average of all other Canadian provinces, were seen in Ontario this spring.

“The province’s goal to reduce the overwinter honey bee mortality rate to 15 per cent by 2020 will bring the industry back to the pre-neonicotinoid average winter loss and will support a thriving, sustainable beekeeping industry going forward,” Szabo said.

Neonics’ widespread use, he said, “has not only put the health of critical pollinators at risk, it has also discouraged farmers from using more pollinator friendly practices like Integrated Pest Management.”

A London, Ont. law firm specializing in class-action suits announced plans in September to file against neonic makers Bayer and Syngenta on behalf of Canadian beekeepers and honey producers, claiming financial losses in both lost hives and lost honey.

“In isolation”

Grain Farmers of Ontario, which represents the province’s corn, soybean and wheat growers, retorted Tuesday that an 80 per cent cut in neonic use is “comparable to a total ban on the product, which the Conference Board of Canada estimates will cost Ontario farmers more than $630 million annually in lost revenue.”

GFO chairman Henry Van Ankum, in a release Tuesday, said the province’s proposed new rule is “unfounded, impractical and unrealistic and the government does not know how to implement it.”

Further, he said, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) continues to license neonics such as clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, across the country. Ontario would be “forced to operate in isolation at an enormous competitive disadvantage” to farmers elsewhere in North America.

Such a disadvantage, GFO CEO Barry Senft said, “will mean smaller margins for grain farmers and could signal the transition away from family farms to large multinational farming operations that can sustain lower margins.”

GFO said it has invested in “multi-year” research to cut the risks to bee health linked to neonics, noting all 28,000 grain farmers across the province followed new best management practices this year and used a new fluency agent to minimize possible seed treatment exposure to bees.

This year, GFO said, 70 per cent fewer bee deaths were reported.

The province, however, contended Tuesday that overwinter die-offs of honey bees have averaged 34 per cent over the past 12 years, with a noted increase in reports of high colony mortality rates during summer months.

In 2012, the province said, about 240 bee yards reported bee deaths, but the number rose to 340 yards in 2013.

The province also cited PMRA as saying about 70 per cent of dead bees tested in 2012 and 75 per cent in 2013 contained residues of neonic insecticides.

GFO and other farmer groups earlier this month launched “Farm Action Now,” a task force to “evaluate the fate” of Ontario agriculture and develop a “farmer-driven science-based blueprint” on the sector’s future.

“Shortly, the government will announce the most restrictive measures yet,” Van Ankum said at the task force’s launch. “We need to halt policies and practices that restrict growth and threaten the future of Ontario’s farming sector.” — Network