Farm community must live up to its ‘science-based’ promises

The term “science-based approach” has become a catch phrase used frequently by folks in agriculture and farm policy.

It has become ubiquitous at news conferences and in press releases.

And despite its neutral appearance, the slogan has come to be used in situations where the stakeholder or official (agriculture ministers included) wants to counter another’s position.

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz continually refers to the promotion of a “science-based approach” in trade negotiations or trade disputes, like U.S. country-of-origin labelling and the use of ractopamine in meat production. Industry does the same.

“Science based” has apparently become synonymous with “agrees with my opinion.”

The most recent example of the lingo surfaced earlier this month when Ontario’s new agriculture minister, Jeff Leal, announced plans to restrict the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

The proposal, which has yet to be approved, would see farmers forced to apply for permits, starting in the 2015 planting season, to use the popular seed treatment on their farms. Neonics are used to coat most corn, soybean and canola seed sold in Canada and are believed to be harmful to bees, birds and butterflies.

The move, predictably, hit a nerve with Ontario’s farming community, sparking divisive and emotional debate.

In a news release, Grain Farmers of Ontario argued they’d been blindsided by the announcement, which broke via the Globe and Mail, a move the group’s chair Henry Van Ankum called “frankly insulting.”

The Ontario Beekeepers Association, which has long pushed for an insecticide ban, insisted the policy was highlighted in the Liberal’s most recent election platform.

Leal now finds himself in the awkward position of attempting to hold meetings on a complex and sensitive topic with tensions mounting between stakeholders.

While Leal has promised a balanced approach “based in science,” Grain Farmers of Ontario said the province’s intent to move away from neonics goes “against Canada’s science-based regulatory system.”

The federal government continues to insist the science is inconclusive but debate among scientists is becoming more decisive.

In recent months, researchers at Harvard University and the University of Guelph in Ontario have released studies linking neonicotinoids to bee deaths.

Several international groups, including 29 independent scientists under the umbrella of the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides who analyzed more than 800 independent and industry led research on the pesticides, have come to similar conclusions.

More researchers are convinced neonicotinoids kill bees, with several scientists comparing the chemicals to DDT and organophosphates.

Proponents of the pesticides continue to insist there is more to bee deaths than neonics. Pests like varroa mites, habitat issues and colder winters are contributing factors, they insist.

The recent Harvard study dismissed most of those claims. All hives involved in the study had similar levels of pathogen infestation, researchers noted.

Yet researchers found the colonies exposed to neonicotinoids abandoned their hives in the middle of winter, a behaviour indicative of the pesticides’ reported impact on bees’ neurological functions.

And so, while industry may continue to insist governments and regulators take a “science-based approach,” that’s exactly what Ontario appears to be doing.

It just so happens that the most recent science doesn’t appear to be siding with farmers.

Farmers have a right to be upset about how the province’s plans to restrict the chemical were unveiled.

They have a right to be concerned about the availability of viable alternatives to neonics, and the market impact a shift might have if only one province regulates them.

They are entitled to a seat at the table and a chance to have their opinions and positions heard. No one is suggesting otherwise.

But all players would be wise to remember “science-based” means exactly that: decisions founded in science.

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