Sault Star: Pesticide ban not the bee's knees

By Tom Mills      Download article

Our provincial government deserves only a muted buzz of applause for restricting neonicotinoid pesticides that have been linked to collapses in bee populations.

The province announced Tuesday it would reduce use of neonicotinoids on corn and soybeans by 80 per cent by 2017.

It's the first province or state in North America to take permanent action against those pesticides, though other jurisdictions have imposed moratoriums or temporary restrictions.

That makes Ontario an environmental leader, I suppose.

Or perhaps it points out how shamefully most governments, which habitually defend the right of corporations to make a profit at almost any cost to human health and the environment, have failed us.

Ontario also announced it will establish an action plan to protect pollinators, aiming to cut the overwinter mortality rate for honeybees to 15 per cent by 2020. Mortality rates rocketed to almost 38 per cent in 2012-13, well above the 15 per cent considered acceptable.

It gave no details on what the plan will be. It didn't have to. There is ample evidence that restricting neonicotinoids will accomplish the goal all on its own.

A Health Canada report a year ago said neonicotinoid-treated seeds "contributed to the majority of the bee mortalities" and noted the damage extends long beyond planting season.

"Current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable," its Pest Management Regulatory Agency concluded.

A European Food Safety Authority study published earlier last year stated neonicotinoids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees.

It added that the industry-sponsored science on which safety claims are based might be flawed and contain gaps. That's becoming a familiar refrain when scientific and medicinal marvels are unleashed upon the world.

Neonicotinoids have been around since the early 1990s and initially were believed to be less harmful than their predecessors. But concerns soon arose.

Studies have linked the pesticides to bee colony collapse, because of immediate exposure to planting dust, cumulative effects of repeated exposure and the chemical's lingering presence in soil, water and other plants.

An American Bird Conservancy scientific review in 2013 called for a neonicotinoid ban because of toxicity to insect-eating birds and other wildlife. A Dutch study that year found water containing allowable levels of the chemical had only half the invertebrate species of uncontaminated water.

The Ontario Beekeepers' Association web site has a huge list of links to studies questioning, and often answering, what damage neonicotinoids are doing.

It's pretty clear, not to mention ironic, that a chemical designed to improve food crops is wreaking havoc on an insect species that's vital to the pollination of food crops.

Yet Ontario's farmers, who should be deeply concerned about the environment and food safety, are instead whining about potential lost profits.

The reductions put "our farmers at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the country," Barry Senft, CEO of Grain Farmers of Ontario, told The Canadian Press.

The Conference Board of Canada estimates they will be stung for $630 million per year.

But farmers themselves may be the biggest culprits, by ladling neonicotinoids onto crops the way mothers once force-fed their children a daily dose of cod liver oil.

The beekeepers association, which does not oppose proper use of neonicotinoid treatments, says it's used inappropriately on 50 per cent of Ontario's cropland.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food has questioned its benefit on any more than 10-20 per cent of corn and soy acreage.

Yet according to a fact sheet posted on, the website of an eastern Ontario farmers organization, neonicotinoids are registered for use on hundreds of crops in the province, including ginseng, herbs, orchard products, sweet potatoes and Christmas trees. Golf courses use them at rates much higher than allowed on food crops, it says.

But don't shed too many tears for the manufacturers of neonicotinoid-treated seed. According to, their patents are expiring and generic copies might soon flood the market. They've taken their profits.

How to avoid a neonicotinoid-like problem in the future?

It would be unrealistic to expect industries to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that their scientific advances are 100 per cent safe for human use. Applying too stringent a standard would prevent new scientific discoveries that might benefit mankind from being developed and used.

But it's not unrealistic to expect industry scientific evidence not to have the sort of holes in it that the European Food Safety Authority has pointed to with neonicotinoids.

That suggests the agencies responsible for approving new agricultural chemicals should be a lot more thorough, skeptical and demanding than they have been to date.

And government bodies should be prepared to react far more quickly than they habitually do when evidence emerges that new scientific developments might be causing unforeseen environmental or health damage.

The responsible action would be to quickly suspend use of a suspected product and order further testing. The onus then should be on the manufacturer to prove its product is safe, not on concerned organizations to prove it is not.

It's not unreasonable to ask farmers to produce crops without a pesticide that didn't exist before the late 20th century. It's unreasonable to expect agriculture to function without bees.

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