Neonicotinoids are a hot-button issue for agriculture and the father of that family of pesticides is being proposed for removal from service in Canada.
Globally, pesticides are at the heart of most farms. Efforts to restrict their use will dramatically reduce farm production. If there were practical, financially acceptable alternatives for farmers to control pests, they would use them.
Health Canada has identified imidacloprid, one of the world’s most popular insecticides, as a problem for aquatic insects in some surface water and potentially for the birds that eat them.
Imidacloprid, the oldest of the neonicotinoid pesticides, has long been known to easily move in wet soil. And now, Health Canada says there are unacceptable levels of it in surface water in agricultural regions.
It says it carried out field tests and its models project imidacloprid to be an issue in surface water across Canada, but it adds that further testing will not be done to confirm the projections due to the costs involved.
Imidacloprid is the active insecticide ingredient in many canola seed treatments that control flea beetles, along with two newer neonicotinoids, thiamethoxam and clothianidin.
It is also used for wireworm in cereals and potatoes. Until recently, neonicotinoids were the only insecticide seed treatment that targeted pests feeding on canola seedlings, generally allowing producers to avoid the use of non-target foliar and soil-applied insecticide.
Short of carbon releasing, soil-eroding tillage, there are no effective cultural practices that defend against flea beetles or wireworms.
Canola alone can suffer extensive yield losses from flea beetles, more than 10 percent even when seed treatments are effective, making this a significant financial threat to Canadian farmers.
Without seed treatments, canola growers are forced to use above-ground applications of non-specific insecticides, a choice that producers find financially and physically unappealing. Reliance on a single mode of action is also perilous. For wireworm there would be no control without imidacloprid.
Thiamethoxam or clothianidin are used to treat nearly all corn and most soybeans grown in Canada and were reviewed for those crops last year.
New active ingredients for globally minor crops in minor markets like Canada are difficult to license. Health Canada provides those approvals and has long been identified by chemical producers as an expensive and slow-moving institution in a market too small to justify the time and expense required to get product approval in some cases.
As a result, farmers have come to believe that Health Canada sometimes stands between them and their ability to compete on an even footing internationally.
So far, American authorities have not placed similar restrictions on imidacloprid but it is banned in the European Union.
Earlier this year, Health Canada ruled that imidacloprid was not a risk to pollinators, which demonstrates that science can sometimes prevail in Canada. But Health Canada needs to ensure that in all cases, science and economics are both well understood and accounted for in its decision-making process.
One would presume that any assessment of neonicotinoids would include a look at the financial value of the products for canola and cereals in Canada before any further restrictions are initiated.
In food production, all new costs come at the expense of the farmer.
Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.