Silent Spring: Saskatchewan biologist studying effects of pesticides called neonics

Are you ready for Silent Spring the Sequel?

Back in 1962, American author Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, documenting the effect of pesticides, primarily DDT, on birds. You can tell by the title what that effect was.

Silent Spring led to the ban on DDT still in effect worldwide, and it is also credited with launching the environmental movement. To this day Carson is celebrated or vilified as a saint or Satan, depending on your point of view.

And now a Saskatchewan biologist is poised to write the next chapter in Silent Spring, with research showing that a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (mercifully shortened into neonics), touted as less toxic as the alternatives, could be responsible for destroying Prairie biodiversity, which would culminate in the awful silence of the birds.

Neonics are used to protect millions of acres of Saskatchewan’s canola crop from pests. Biologist Christy Morrissey has been studying the effect of neonics on wetlands, and recently shared her work in progress  with a CBC investigative journalist.

The news is not good, especially for the birds. One-and-a-half years into a four-year study, Morrissey has discovered that neonics linger in wetlands at concentrations up to 100 times higher than the levels regarded as safe. And bird and insect populations are falling — half of Canada’s bird species are in decline. While it’s not yet clear that neonics are the culprit, (and loss of habitat is clearly a big factor) residues are also turning up in insects and birds and Morrissey is worried. According to her research, 44 per cent of Prairie crops are treated with neonics, so they are hard to avoid if you’re a bird.

Morrissey’s research drags the Prairies into the global controversy over neonics that led the European Union to impose a two-year ban over the strenuous objection of European farmers. The reason: The mysterious decline of bees. This decline is critical, and not just for honey lovers, because bees, as pollinators, play a huge role in the annual success of food production. No bees, no crops. So those EU guys aren’t fooling around.

Farmers argue that neonics are safer than the alternative organophosphates. And for years, Saskatchewan’s deployment of neonics has been used to demonstrate they are safe. Although virtually all canola crops are treated with neonics, Prairie bees seem unaffected by the chemicals, producing 50 million pounds of canola honey a year, according to an Ontario field study (note: Funded by Bayer, which produces neonics).

You can understand why Morrissey feels a sense of urgency. There’s a lot riding on her research. Or perhaps we should say flying: Mosquitoes, midges, bees, butterflies and birds. Back in 1962 we narrowly avoided at DDT catastrophe, thanks to Carson. And now, 52 years later, the song of spring may be threatened again. Will Morrissey be the next Carson?