When longtime Conservative MP Rona Ambrose was named Canada’s health minister last July, it’s unlikely she was expecting one of her most controversial files to be bee health.
Yet, for such a small insect, bees are proving to be a major public relations thorn in Ambrose’s side.
For more than a year, environmentalists, scientists and beekeepers have been sounding the alarm over the heavy use of a popular class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.
Developed in 1991, nenonics are used as a seed treatment on corn, canola and soybean seeds. A systemic pesticide, the highly toxic chemical permeates the entire plant structure, protecting it from harmful pests.
Use of the chemicals is widespread, with an estimated 92 to 95 percent of corn acreage in Canada and the United States treated with neonics. Grain farmers are adamant neonics are essential to modern agriculture, arguing their removal would see crop yields drop by more than 20 percent.
Neonic supporters also insist the pesticides are being used as a scapegoat, overshadowing other threats to bee health. Massive verroa mite outbreaks, habitat problems and harsh winters are equally, if not more, to blame for the sudden decline in bee populations, they say.
However, beekeepers, environmentalists, the National Farmers Union and a growing number of scientists are convinced neonics are responsible for mass bee deaths, averaging nearly 30 percent per year. These death tolls, they say, are simply not sustainable.
The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides released the most recent report on the subject June 24. The project saw 29 independent scientists from around the world spend four years analyzing the findings of more than 800 peer-reviewed independent and industry-led studies on neonics.
The result of their research is a thorough report containing one of the most damning analyses released thus far.
“The evidence is very clear,” Dr. Jean-Marc Bonmatin, the project’s lead researcher, told reporters in Ottawa June 25. “We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT.”
The report will be made public in the peer-reviewed journal Environment Science and Pollution Research next month.
Public and stakeholder reaction to the report was instantaneous, fierce and highly divisive.
With the task force now adding its names to the list of folks who want the pesticides banned, at least for a minimum of four years, Ambrose finds herself in a precarious situation.
Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency is conducting an investigation into the use of neonics in Canada, but the final report is not expected until sometime next year.
Still, it is worth noting that even the PMRA admitted in September 2013 that nenonics (via contaminated dust from corn planters) have contributed to major bee deaths in Ont-ario and Quebec.
Up to this point, Ottawa brushed off calls for a moratorium, insisting any decisions on the sensitive subject must be science-based.
Ambrose, meanwhile, continues to insist the science remains “inconclusive,” a stance she reiterated while taking questions in Toronto June 24.
The task force findings, however, make it harder for Ambrose to dispute. The peer-reviewed research was conducted independently, by some of the world’s top toxicology, pesticide and insect health scientists. It is also one of the most thorough of its kind on the topic.
The European Union has already imposed a two-year moratorium on three neonicotinoid pesticides. Here in Canada, several communities, along with the province of Prince Edward Island, are contemplating a similar ban. One county in Ontario (Prince Edward County) has already banned the use of the pesticides on municipal land.
There’s no disputing that the bee health file is a complicated and divisive issue both within the farming community and outside it. Whatever Ambrose decides to do, someone (be it farmers, beekeepers, the scientific community or the general public) will be left fuming by her decision.
While Ambrose may be able to avoid the topic for a few more months, thanks to Parliament’s summer break, bee health is expected to rear its head in Ottawa when MPs and senators return to the Hill in the fall.
That’s when the Senate agriculture committee, which has spent much of the past year immersed in a comprehensive and detailed study of bee health, is expected to release its final report.
Whatever its findings, the report will be sure to garner major political and public buzz.
Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics, www.ipolitics.ca.