Friday, 11 July 2014

Now We're Getting Into It

There's been some good reporting on the use of neonicotinoids, the most widely used insecticide, found on everything from flea collars for pets, to seed coating on the most widely grown crops, soybeans and corn.  It replaced a class of pesticides called organphosphates which are close chemical relatives to nerve gases developed in the second world war, and therefore toxic to mammals (people). The neonicotinoids  are relatively safer for us, but have a debilitating impact on the behavior of bees, and are clearly linked to the a huge jump in bee mortality around the world.  Ontario has now announced it will bring in restrictions on its use, following a similar move in Europe. Commercial grain farmers are fighting back, and this week the Conference Board of Canada jumped in with it's own report, partly funded by grain farmers, and Crop Life Canada, the trade association for the large pesticide manufacturers.  PEI potato growers and other farmers  do use a neonicotinoid called imidacloprid as a systemic pesticide when planting.  The upside is there isn't the need for insecticide spraying, and fortunately bees have little interest in potato flowers as a source of pollen, but there is growing evidence that  neonicotinoids remain active for years, and even at very low levels can negatively impact bee behavior.  Here are some recent stories on new developments, and a column I wrote a few months ago.

Pesticide linked to bee deaths to be restricted in Ontario

Ontario intends to become the first province to restrict the use of a controversial pesticide linked to bee deaths, requiring farmers and other commercial growers to apply for permits to plant seeds treated with neonicotinoid insecticides.
The government wants to limit the blanket use of the seed treatment, while balancing the protection of insect pollinators with the needs of farmers to guard their crops and livelihoods against insects.
The provincial agriculture ministry will soon begin holding meetings with farmers, beekeepers and pesticide makers with the goal of having a licensing system in place by the fall, when growers order seeds for next year.
“We are committed to working with stakeholders to develop a system that targets the use of neonicotinoid-treated seed only to areas or circumstances where there is demonstrated need,” said Jeff Leal, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
“Our intention is to work with the industry to move away from the widespread, indiscriminate use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides,” he said.
“Ideally, we would have a structure in place for the 2015 planting season – that is what we are working toward.”
Neonicotinoids, – neonics for short – protect seeds and plants from worms and other crop-destroying insects, and have been blamed by several studies and Health Canada for the widespread collapse in colonies of honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Bees are exposed to neonicotinoids in two ways: by eating the pollen, or by ingesting or carrying back to the hive the neonic-infused field dust kicked up by the tractor and planter. A University of Saskatchewan biologist found the chemicals in the province’s streams, ditches and insects, and even up the food chain in birds. To reduce the dust, neonic suppliers such as Bayer AG and Syngenta have begun supplying the seeds with a wax-based lubricant, under the direction of Health Canada. But the lubricant, combined with modified planting machines, reduces dust by only 20 per cent.
The use of neonicotinoids has been banned temporarily in Europe, but are unregulated in Canada and the United States. Ontario does not have the power to ban pesticides, which are regulated by Health Canada, but the province can control or ban their sale.
The connection between bee deaths and the pesticides is murky. Some studies point to parasitic mites and viruses as the more likely causes of bee deaths, in addition to winter starvation and loss of habitat. Some say insects do not absorb lethal doses of the insecticide through pollen, though beekeepers and others maintain even small amounts can weaken bees and make them susceptible to other maladies. However, beekeepers in Western Canada have not seen their colonies collapse, even though their hives feed on the flowers of canola, a crop that is treated with neonicotinoids.
Most of the bee deaths have been concentrated in Ontario, a province with the warm summers best suited to growing corn, a grain used in biofuels and animal feed. Ontario grows more than 60 per cent of the country’s corn, and corn is thought to be most closely linked to the province’s bee deaths. The irregular shape and size of the seeds, combined with the compressed-air planters, make the planting process quite dusty.
Beekeepers in Ontario say their winter losses have risen to as high as 50 per cent from 15 per cent before neonicotinoids became popular, and many want the pesticide banned. However, that view is not shared by all beekeepers in the province, nor the Canadian Honey Council, which represents 7,000 apiarists across the country.
Rod Scarlett, executive director of the group said he welcomes a reduction in the use of neonicotinoids. But he doubts the effectiveness of a licensing system because farmers and government officials might not know at the beginning of the season where the pesticide is or isn’t needed.
“We want to ensure farmers don’t suffer,” Mr. Scarlett said in an interview from his office near Edmonton.
Growers of flowers, fruits and vegetables are also heavy users of the insecticide. Neonicotinoid proponents note the chemical is not absorbed by humans, and it is much more effective, cheaper and safer than the older insecticides it replaced.
“Even the crop protection companies will tell you neonics kills bees. They are designed to be an insecticide,” Mr. Scarlett said. “The bigger question in the mind of the Canadian Honey Council is, what’s next? How do we mitigate the risk? If that product isn’t available for farmers to use, do they go back to organophosphates, which are far worse for mammals and insects?”
Ontario is home to about 3,000 of the country’s 7,000 beekeepers. Most beekeepers know to keep their bees away from corn fields during planting. But given the prevalence of the crop, and the high density of Ontario’s farmland, this is often not possible, Mr. Scarlett said.
Ontario has taken other steps to support the honey industry, providing $105 per hive to those who lose 40 per cent of their bees, and committing $1.2-million to research on pollinator health and farming methods.

Neonics restrictions risk killing some Ontario grain farms: Conference Board

By | Jul 10, 2014

Ontario’s plans to move away from a controversial – yet highly popular – class of pesticides believed to be killing bees risk costing the province’s grain farmers millions of dollars in lost acreages, a new Conference Board of Canada report warned Thursday.
“We estimate that such a restriction [on neonicotinoids] would cause farms to exit the market or reduce acreage, costing Ontario farmers more than $630 million annually in lost revenue and reducing Ontario’s GDP by nearly $440 million,” the report reads.
Neonicotinoids – or neonics – are used as a coating on corn, soybean and canola seeds. Systemic in nature, the insecticides permeate the entire plant, protecting it from harmful pests. The chemicals are developed by Bayer and Syngenta.
The report comes just days after Ontario’s Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal announced he plans to restrict the use of neonics, a move that would see the province become the first in Canada to regulate the insecticide.
The move has been heralded by most Ontario beekeepers, who argue the current level of bee deaths is unsustainable. Grain farmers, along with a handful of commercial beekeepers, though, are convinced the restrictions will mean lower yields, with some farmers forced out of business.
“Farm income is not evenly distributed. Some farmers are in a strong financial position, while others break even or operate at a loss,” the report notes.
“Depending on their financial performance, farms will likely either reduce their production or exit the industry in response to higher production costs, lowers crop yields, or a combination of both,” if tougher regulations are imposed, the board warned.
A restriction, the report adds, would put Ontario farmers at a competitive disadvantage because “no restriction on their use has been implemented in Canada or the United States.”
The move would be particularly devastating for Ontario corn and soybean growers who would see higher input costs in a market already dominated by larger American growers, the report cautioned. Corn and soybeans are the two largest grain and oilseed crops grown in Ontario, worth some $3.5 billion in farm cash receipts in 2012.
Farmers would also be forced to purchase more expensive insecticides should Ontario follow through on plans to restrict the chemical,” the report reads. And, while some alternatives are available, the report warned neonics are also “used to control some insects for which there is no alternative.”
Instead, growers would be forced to use foliar sprays (sprayed onto the plant’s leaves during growth), the report argues, which can be less effective.
The eighty-page Conference Board report was funded in part by the Grain Farmers of Ontario and CropLife Canada – two proponents of the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
The study was launched at the request of Grain Farmers of Ontario, who asked the Conference Board of Canada to conduct an “independent economic analysis of a hypothetical restriction” on neonics.
Highly controversial, neonics are at the heart of a divisive and public debate within Canada’s farming community. Beekeepers, environmentalists and several scientists insist the chemicals are responsible for major bee deaths – averaging around 30 per cent per year – losses they say are simply unsustainable.
They want the insecticides banned for a minimum of four years – a move that would see Canada fall in step with the European Union. The EU imposed a two-year moratorium on three neonicotinoid pesticides in 2013 – a moratorium many expect will be extended past its 2015 deadline.
The pesticides are currently being reviewed by Health Canada’s Pest Management Agency (PMRA) – the body responsible for regulating pesticide used in Canada.
While their final report is not expected until sometime in 2015, preliminary findings by the agency in September 2013 determined contaminated dust during planting has contributed to bee deaths in Ontario and Quebec.
As a result of their findings, the agency ordered grain farmers to use a new seed lubricant – used to ease the flow of seeds through the planter – during the 2014 planting season. The new lubricant is meant to reduce the amount of dust created. Its effectiveness, though, is still unknown.
The Senate Agriculture and Forestry committee is currently conducting a detailed and lengthy study on bee health. Their final report is expected in December 2014.
Meanwhile, the federal government has repeatedly insisted it will not consider restricting the use of neonics until the PMRA report is made public or the science becomes more “conclusive.”

All abuzz over neonics debate

By | Jul 10, 2014

Ontario farm fields are buzzing this summer – not with bees, but with controversy. At issue is a proposed provincial ban on the sale of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide that protects crops but stands accused of killing bees. Bee farmers claim it has decimated their hives, while grain farmers call their accusations junk science. And now a Conference Board of Canada report warns that the proposed ban would force some farmers out of business, and cost farmers – and the province – hundreds of millions in lost revenue.
Neonocotinoids, or neonics, have been around for two decades. Instead of spraying them on their fields, which can affect other crops and organisms, farmers purchase seed pre-coated with the compound, and the product is present throughout the plant. In Canada, they are heavily used in the west for grain crops: some 19 million acres of canola, for example, are pollinated by bees, and 100 percent treated with neonicotinoids.
Between 2007 and 2012 the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency reported no bee kills associated with neonics in all of western Canada. There have been some reported issues in corn fields with corn dust affecting bee populations. Consequently, last year the PMRA proposed not to ban the product, but to use different seeding techniques to eliminate the dust.
However, in Ontario, many bee growers are convinced that neonics are killing their bees. The Ontario Beekeeper Association’s website is awash in articles about the evils of neonicotinoids. At the same time, other studies suggest that fungicides are a far greater threat to bee health. Other suspects in mass bee deaths include harsh winters, viruses and the varroa mite, a tiny parasitic insect which feeds on the bees “blood” and causes them to become prone to infections.
The bee population in Canada has actually grown, from 600,000 colonies in 2000 to 700,000 in 2012. Around the world, bee colonies are also increasing, despite the increasing use of the products.
The Ontario law would bring the province in line with the European Union, which voted to ban neonics because of alleged bee deaths. What Canadians may not know is that the country that drove the European ban on neonics, France, did so not for reasons of science, but politics. Domestic pressure by French environmentalists had pushed that country to ban the substance, which disadvantaged their farmers, and led France to seek an EU ban to level the playing field. The French went so far as to issue a press release that misrepresented the data on neonics and bees (which did not support a ban) in their efforts. At the end of 2013, a two-year EU ban took effect.
Recent evidence is making many Europeans rethink the ban. Research published this spring in the Journal of the Entomological Society of America found that soybean and cotton plants grown from neonic-treated seed had no traces of neonics in soybean flowers or cotton nectar. They did find microscopic traces of neonics in corn at levels of 2.3 parts per billion, levels so small that the American EPA considers them insignificant. One of the study’s authors, Dr. Gus Lorenz, concluded that neonics are “not being expressed in the reproductive parts of the plants.” Canadian researcher Cynthia Scott-Dupree of the University of Guelph reached similar conclusions, finding “no effects or “poor performance” in treatment colonies” of bees who feasted on neonicotinoid-treated crops.
Studies that have established negative effects have been done in the lab, exposing bees directly to the chemical, in a manner that would not arguably happen when they pollinate treated plants. Some researchers claim that over time, “sublethal” exposure in the field would achieve the same effect. This flies in the face, however, of sheer numbers: the bee population in Canada has actually grown, from 600,000 colonies in 2000 to 700,000 colonies in 2012. Around the world, bee colonies are also increasing, despite the increasing use of the products.
What would happen if Ontario bans neonics – and other provinces follow suit? Farmers would turn to other pesticides, such as organophosphates and pyrethroids, both of which have been proven toxic to bees, and which aren’t exactly embraced by environmentalist for human consumption, either. If the Wynne government rushes to judgement on neonics, it risks hurting crop farmers and consumers, by lowering yields and increasing prices. And that buzzing they hear won’t be bees, but angry voters.




Time to Take Their Own Advice

Pesticide companies are hard to love. They make a lot of money even when their customers don’t, and whatever the science says there’s a gnawing feeling amongst many that pesticide use is behind growing cancer numbers and environmental degradation.  

The companies play the public relations game as well as anyone.  When family doctors promote the idea that cosmetic use of pesticides should be banned, you can bet that Crop Life Canada, the trade association representing developers and distributors of pesticides, will argue that all products are approved by Health Canada, and if used properly pose no risk.

We will hear more from Crop Life in the months ahead as debate heats up over the use of neonicotinoids, the widely used family of  insecticides that’s been linked to bee deaths. Neonicotinoids are facing regulatory reviews in Europe, new label requirements in the United States, and a growing social media campaign opposing their use here in Canada.  

Crop Life should pay attention to a section of its own website that could help us understand the risks of neonicotinoids, and how they might be used more safely:

The responsible use of crop protection products is undertaken within the context of promoting Integrated Pest Management strategies, with the underlying principles that a crop protection product should be used only when necessary – using the right tool at the right time, in the right place and in the right way.

That’s in fact close to what Rachael Carson, the godmother of modern environmentalism was saying in Silent Spring:

"It’s not my contention that chemical pesticides must never be used.  I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of  persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm... "

That’s not how neonicotinoids are used.  Seeds are coated  with the insecticide before planting and every stalk or plant becomes a source of  the pesticide. There are benefits to this, farmers don’t need to regularly spray during the summer, but it’s still a far cry from “Integrated Pest Management” called for by Crop Life: sampling to find if insect levels are serious enough to need a pesticide and then using “only when necessary – using the right tool at the right time, in the right place and in the right way.”

There’s a similar issue with “round-up ready” crops, the GMO soybeans, corn, and canola varieties so widely grown in North America. They resist glyphosphate, a relatively safe herbicide.  It’s become very convenient for farmers to use these GMO crops and control weeds with one or two passes of Round-up. But nature has responded (as it always does) and created super weeds that themselves resist glyphosphate.  Again this isn’t using herbicides “when necessary, and in the right place”, but blanketing millions of acres with one product, with the resulting “resistance” that’s the inevitable result.  The pesticide companies then get the additional benefit of developing new herbicides to control the superweeds, with the patents and profits that go along with that.

No doubt the media will present the fight over neonicotinoids as all or nothing, a ban or hell in a hand basket. Maybe the more important question is how these products are used, that convenience for farmers, and profits for pesticide companies has trumped common sense and biology. Crop Life could take a leadership role in changing the nature of the debate, and all it has to do is follow it’s own advice.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Maybe When We're Hungry We'll Pay Attention

I-Politics is an on-line publication that's a good read for anyone interested in politics and government policy. It also takes a real interest in agriculture. In fact it's headline on a Saturday in early July was about little known research about Canadian's attitudes towards farming. It's an important read.

Farm-to-fork divide is a yawning gulf, federal research shows

By | Jul 5, 2014 5:00 am |
From a crisis in western rail capacity to the major stumbling blocks in transcontinental trade agreements, Canadian agriculture has been at the heart of some of the past year’s most important policy debates.
Yet recently released government research reveals something farmers have long warned of: most Canadians have no idea where their food comes from, how its made or how important it is to their own economic fortunes.
“Findings from this series of focus groups clearly indicate a relatively low level of awareness, particularly among urban dwellers, of the current state of the [agriculture] sector and its contributions to provincial, regional and the national economy,” the report reads.
Similar findings were reported in rural centres, the report added. While rural residents noted a higher familiarity with agriculture in general, researchers found “they nonetheless felt they too were not as knowledgeable of the larger national picture and outlook.”
The information was collected for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada last December via 18 focus groups held in eight communities across Canada: Toronto, Halifax, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, New Liskeard, Ont., Montmagny, Que. and Selkirk, MB.
Each meeting lasted just over two hours and was made up of eight to 11 participants with men and women over 18 years old.
Few of those polled identified the agriculture sector as a “key economic driver.” That, despite the fact Canada’s agriculture sector contributes $100 billion to the national economy annually and is tied to one in eight jobs in this country, a statistic which “surprised” many focus group members, the report said.
In fact, most participants, the report reads, “felt Canada’s agricultural sector could be considered ‘relatively low-tech’ or not as innovative” as the energy sector, the auto sector or the service sector.
Participants, the report argues, are stuck in the past with “romanticized” or “idealistic” view of agriculture. An image researchers said, more in tune with what farming used to look like “in the last century” than with today’s modern farm.
Only a handful of those surveyed had visited a working farm.
The result is a major disconnect from an industry expected to dominate the future Canadian trade agenda.
Canada is currently the fifth largest exporter of agricultural goods, a fact unfamiliar to most participants. While most could name wheat as a major export, few were able to list other Canadian exports.
In fact, pollsters were routinely told Canada was a net importer of food thanks to the wide variety of imported fruits and vegetables found in Canadian grocery stores.
“I feel like agriculture is silent in Canada,” one participant noted. Despite widespread government advertizing campaigns attempting to reconnect Canadians with the farm, for everyday folks food, they said, comes from the grocery stores.
The unfamiliarity with the farming world also means few participants were aware of major policy debates including ones on supply management or the pending Canada-European Trade Agreement.
While most participants had heard of marketing boards, researchers found few were familiar with the workings of supply management with many participants posing questions about how quotas were set.
Debate on the issue reportedly generated “mixed responses” with participants noting the system likely benefited producers by “offering greater income security.” However, many raised concerns about the impact supply management had on consumer choices, restricted competition and higher prices.
As for the European trade deal, pollsters found most participants hadn’t heard of it.
While some had heard rumblings of a “perceived negative impact on fine cheese producers in Quebec,” along with possible gains for beef, the report found “they had no specific knowledge of the terms of the agreement or how it might benefit the Canadian agriculture industry.”