Orangeville Banner: Province looks to take the buzz out of neonicotinoid pesticides

Orangeville Banner

The province has neonicotinoid pesticides in its crosshairs, a controversial subject that has divided the local agricultural community for years.

“There has been a bit of a tension between the crop protection industry and pesticides and bees for a long time,” said Leo Blydorp, director for the Dufferin Federation of Agriculture (DFA). “It is just a matter of weighing what is for the greatest good.”

On Tuesday (Nov. 25), the province announced plans to reduce the amount of acreage planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds in Ontario by 80 per cent within the next two years.

If approved, Ontario would become the first province in Canada to regulate the use of neonics, while environmental concerns recently led Europe to implement a two-year moratorium on their use.

“Farmers have taken significant action to reduce pesticide use, reducing overall usage by some 45 per cent in the past three decades,” Jeff Leal, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, said in a news release. “We know there is more that can be done, and we will work with farmers to protect the environment.”

Pollinators such as bees play an important role in the agricultural sector, especially when it relates to the growth of apples, cherries, peaches, plums, cucumbers, asparagus, squash, pumpkins and melons.

However, seeds treated with neonics have been scientifically linked to bee deaths. According to the Ontario Provincial Winter Loss Survey, the bee mortality rate of 58 per cent last winter was the highest in the province’s history.

“It’s disheartening to open up a hive and see dead bees,” said Hartford Manning, president of the Dufferin Beekeepers Association. “If we can see the levels of these neonicotinoid pesticides reduced by 80 per cent, I think it should have an impact on the quality and the health of our bees.”

A series of public consultation sessions seeking input from farmers, beekeepers, researchers and other affected stakeholders on how to best go about achieving the province’s goal will be held this winter.

If approved, new rules on the use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds would come into effect on July 1, just in time for the 2016 agricultural planting season.

“We will work with farmers, beekeepers and all others impacted by this to implement a plan sensitive to their needs,” Leal said.

“We know, and farmers recognize, there are risks associated with the use of neonicotinoid pesticides,” he added. “We also know that, in certain circumstances, they are an important tool for farmers.”

Manning expects Ontario’s farmers will strongly oppose the government’s proposal. He argued some studies indicate these pesticide treatments are being applied to seeds when it may not even be needed.

“I do appreciate that other groups need time to respond and adjust,” Manning said. “But if I was applying something to my bees that killed 50 per cent of the cows in the fields around me, there would be a much larger outcry.”

Blydorp said neonic seed treatments are an insurance policy for some farmers.

Coating seeds with the pesticide beforehand is “relatively inexpensive” compared to what farmers may have to do should they encounter a pest problem later in the growing season, he said.

“I don’t believe every acre necessarily needs to be treated,” Blydorp explained. “There is a great percentage that don’t, but you’re taking a bit of risk.”

In years gone by, it was difficult for farmers to obtain corn or soybean seeds that weren’t treated with neonics. Blydorp said seed distributors are slowly beginning to shift away from that a little bit.

“They’re moving toward allowing growers more choice,” he said, noting neonics replaced harsher pesticides regulators wanted to eliminate about 20 years ago. “It just seems that this bee issue has just kind of emerged in the last number of years.”

Blydorp admitted it is a controversial subject within the agricultural community, pitting farmers against pollinator crop growers. It has even caused division within each of their respective sects, he explained.

“As a grower, I’m concerned about maintaining pollinators and pollinator health,” Blydorp said. “But I’m also concerned about controlling pests when the need arises.”

The province will now work towards finding a solution that satisfies both farmers and beekeepers. Whether that can be achieved remains to be seen.

“It has got to be good science that ultimately dictates what happens or what needs to be done,” Manning said. “We don’t want to go backwards. If we eliminate or ban the use of these seed treatments, we better be very careful of what is introduced to help farmers.” 

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