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It is time to protect the pollinators

At the end of June, a panel of independent scientists, operating as the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, stated that pesticides linked to bee deaths must be banned.  This panel contained 29 independent scientists from around the world who spent four years analyzing the findings of more than 800 peer-reviewed independent and industry-led studies. They found that the pesticides neonicotinoids and fipronilare are seriously harming the environment, posing a similar threat as DDT did in the 1960s.

The Globe reports that in Ontario “winter losses of bees have risen to as high as 50 per cent from 15 per cent before neonicotinoids became popular, and many want the pesticide banned… 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.” 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.

“A Health Canada report has suggested that seeds treated with the insecticide 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. According to the Canadian Honey Council, the bee population in Canada has dropped by an estimated 35 per cent in the past three years.”

Today, the Toronto Star reports that Ontario is only looking at ‘restricting’ the use of a pesticide that may pose a risk to honey bees, rather than banning it temporarily as recommended by a government-appointed panel.  The government hopes to have a system in place by the 2015 planting season. The provincial government is also providing the honey industry $105 per hive to those who lose 40% of their bees.

Instead of solving the problem, the Provincial government seems happy to offer half measures and hush money. Jeff Leal, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs stated, ““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… Our intention is to work with the industry to move away from the widespread, indiscriminate use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides.”  What ‘working with industry’ and ‘demonstrated need’ truly mean is anyone’s guess.  What we will get is likely an expensive licensing system and enforcement instead of a comprehensive ban and investing in our farmers using alternative control methods.

The CBC reports that, “Ontario doesn’t have the power to ban neonicotinoids – a class of chemicals also known as neonics – but it can ban their sale in the province as it did with lawn chemicals. 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 Task Force outlined that we are contaminating the global environment with highly toxic and persistent chemicals and, “not just pollinators are exposed. Any animal that munches on the plants or seeds is also at risk. There’s also soil and water exposure to take into account. In soil, what is known as the pesticide’s half-life — or the amount of time it takes for half of the compound to disappear — can be years. Farmers who use the product annually build up toxicity in the soil, so the pesticide gets into groundwater and then streams, Soil contamination also exposes terrestrial animals like earthworms. Freshwater snails and water fleas suffer the most from water contamination… Plants sprayed with neonics can remain toxic for years and that can affect entire ecosystem.”  In Ontario, there are over 4 million acres treated with these pesticides. 

The report went on to state that, “We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT. Far from protecting food production, the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem… some neonics are 5,000 to 10,000 more toxic to bees than DDT.” And while we wouldn’t use DDT, provincial and federal governments are dragging their feet in fully banning the equally – if not much more – dangerous pesticides containing neonicotinoids and fipronilare.

In the face of this clear and accurate science –to the surprise of no one – ‘Health Minister’ Rona Ambrose called the research done by her department to date ‘inconclusive’.  Others, like Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also do not support a ban on neonicotinoids (despite his own party’s convention delegates voting in favour of a ban), previously stating, “we will take into account the concerns of people who voted in the Liberal party, but ultimately we’re a party of science-based policy.”

And this pesticide use is not just limited to farms. An article by Wired outlines how when researchers purchased 71 bee-friendly plants (including daisies, lavender, marigolds, asters and primrose) at 18 big box outlets across the United States and Canada,  “more than half of the plants, the researchers measured neonicotinoid residues in the flowers at levels between 2 and 748 parts per billion.A dose of 192 parts per billion is enough to kill a honeybee, she says, and dozens of studies have found impairments in bee navigation, memory and foraging ability at between 4 and 30 parts per billion.”  In Canada, the CBC reports that a study found neonics in the flowers and pollen of plants tested from Rona, Canadian Tire and Home Depot in garden centres in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

While any reduction in the use of neonicotinoids is welcomed, why the half measures in the face of such clear and disturbing evidence? A ban is clearly needed; life without bees and other pollinators is not a pretty sight.  “Seventy-five per cent of the crops that we eat are pollinated by insects of one type or another — mostly by bees… Pollinators, like bees and butterflies, are heavily affected by pesticides.”  In total, it is estimated bees pollinate about $30 billion worth of crops per year.


At the same time, Neonicotinoids represent 40% of the insecticide market, and global sales tallied more than $2.79 billion in 2011. 92 to 95% percent of corn acreage in Canada and half of soybean seed is grown using neonics; of this, 90% of this ends up going into the environment not the crop. With treated seeds having a stranglehold on the market, the pesticide lobby argues their removal would see crop yields drop by more than 20 percent and blames mites for colony collapse.  What they really means is their sales would drop drastically with a ban and that money is more important than our environment.

National Farmers Union president, Jan Slomp, has called on the federal government to implement a five-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments in field crop.”We also once again call on the Canadian and provincial governments and regulatory agencies to act in the public interest by protecting bees, other pollinators, the farmers whose livelihoods rely on pollinators, and Canada’s food sovereignty.  In order to act in the interest of the public, governments and regulatory agencies must give serious and full consideration to research carried out by independent scientists, such as the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, not just on the information and data provided by chemical and seed companies.”

It is clear the federal and provincial governments are not fully interested in protecting the environment and its pollinators. Up to this point both Ottawa and Provincial governments have dragged their feet and it does not look like this is likely to change.  As is far too often the case, it is the local ‘fight backs’ where change is occurring.

This raises the question, can municipalities ban the use of neonicotinoids pesticides? As this excellent article points out in much more detail, two of the powers that municipalities have to pass by-laws, referred to as spheres of jurisdiction, include by-laws for: 1. Economic, social and environmental well being of the municipality, and 2. health, safety and well-being of persons. For an anti-neonics by-law to succeed, the municipality would need to demonstrate that its bylaw protects the economic, social and environmental well being of their particular community.

Stuck in this situation, Prince Edward County – one of the highest producing agricultural regions in Ontario – took matters into their own hands becoming the first municipality to temporarily ban neonicotinoids. In late May, the county passed a motion prohibiting the use of neonicotinoids pesticides on municipal land. The motion went so far as to urge seed companies to make adequate supplies of non-treated seeds available.

The city of Hamilton now looks to be the second Ontario municipality to ban neonicotinoids. Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla stated, “I’m actually stunned by the impact that’s before us, with very little action from higher levels of government… There’s an irresponsibility to the just-wait-and-see approach when there’s tangible evidence that we can’t afford to wait and see.”

To pass resolutions stopping the use of neonicotinoids on lands owned by municipalities is a great first step, and one that all municipalities should be making. Hopefully, as more and more municipalities speak up we will see some serious action by Federal and Provincial governments before it is too late.


Further reading

Health Canada fails to protect bees from deadly insecticide
EU bans bee-killing pesticide, will Harper do the same?
Barlow calls for a ban on neonicotinoid insecticide
Save Ontario’s Bees: Ban The Use Of Neonicotinoid Pesticides