Windsor Star: Ontario pro-bee pesticide plan hailed & denounced

By Doug Schmidt view full article

Beekeepers and environmentalists are ecstatic, but some farmers are upset with plans by the provincial government to radically reduce the Ontario agricultural sector’s reliance on neonicotinoid pesticide use.

“It’s going to be quite an undertaking … but it’s good news,” said Tom Congdon of Sun Parlor Honey in Cottam.

The local honey producer blames neonicotinoid use by farmers for his company’s loss last winter of 41 per cent of its bee colonies, followed by another 25 per cent in the spring.

Ziad Noori lets bees climb on his thumb as he looks over a bee hive in a tree stump that was rescued in Windsor on November 11, 2014. (TYLER BROWNBRIDGE/The Windsor Star)

Citing a recent report by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency that pointed to a link between planting corn and soybean seeds treated with neonicotinoids — an agricultural insecticide — and mass bee deaths, the province has set a goal of reducing by 80 per cent the acreage of neonic-treated corn and soybean seed by 2017.

“We’re disappointed of course,” said Lakeshore farmer Leo Guilbeault, a director of the Grain Farmers Association of Ontario who grows about 2,000 acres of cash crops in Essex County.

Guilbeault said it will not only result in more crop damage and a loss of yield due to insects, but it will also mean a competitive disadvantage with growers south of the border and in the rest of Canada, as well as the loss of seed supply sources in those other areas.

The provincial Liberals announced Tuesday they were taking the action “to strengthen bird, bee, butterfly and other pollinator health to ensure healthy ecosystems, a productive agricultural sector and a strong economy.”

Some European countries have implemented outright neonicotinoid bans, but Ontario is the first jurisdiction in North America to contemplate action to reduce growers’ dependence. Crops such as apples, cherries, peaches, plums, cucumbers, asparagus, squash, pumpkins, and melons need help from natural pollinators to grow.

“The 80 per cent reduction target is a bold and necessary step to address the threats that these pesticides pose to human and ecosystem health,” said Anne Bell, director of conservation and education at Ontario Nature.

Guilbeault said neonicotinoids replaced the “much deadlier” organo-phosphate class of pesticides and have become the “insecticide of choice” for corn and soybean growers. “It’s a lot safer than what we used to use,” he said.

Health Canada has suggested that seeds treated with neonicotinoids contributed to the majority of the bee deaths in Ontario and Quebec in 2012, likely due to exposure of the pesticide-laced dust during planting. Congdon said 70 per cent of samples taken across Ontario last year showed the presence of neonicotinoids in dead and live bees, as well as in the pollen, hives and plants visited by the bees.

“In the samples from our colonies, it was 100 per cent,” Congdon said.

Sun Parlor was one of two honey producers that recently launched a proposed multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit against the manufacturers of the chemical that beekeepers allege is linked to mass bee die-offs.

“Scientific evidence shows that neonicotinoids harm bees by disrupting their ability to feed, navigate and reproduce, making them more susceptible to bacterium, virus, or other microorganisms that can cause disease,” the province said in its announcement.

The province has released a discussion paper on the proposed changes and is seeking public input and will conduct consultation sessions over the next two months with industry, researchers, organizations and individuals.

The agro-chemical industry was quick to respond Tuesday and didn’t mince words.

“This is a bad day for Ontario agriculture,” CropLife Canada said in a statement, calling the “ill-informed” reduction target a “non-science-based approach (that) will only serve to hurt both farmers and the environment.”

But environmental groups cheered the development, with the Sierra Club calling it “one of the biggest environmental victories in years” against a backdrop of intense lobbying by chemical company giants that benefit from the multibillion-dollar annual neonicotinoid global market.

“This is an essential first step and it was courageous,” said John Bennett, the Sierra Club Canada Foundation’s national program director. or on Twitter @schmidtcity