Limiting neonicotinoids may be putting cart before horse

Set the stage for a fight.

Ontario has moved to re-strict the number of acres treated with neonicotinoid pesticides by 80 percent by 2017, and tensions between the provincial government, grain farmers and beekeepers are mounting.

Many of the province’s beekeepers are over the moon, while grain farmers are fuming.

Meanwhile, the Ontario government, whose relationship with rural Ontario remains strained, is left trying to negotiate a solution that will appease both sides.

It’s no secret that the provincial government has been under mounting public pressure to do something about the neonicotinoid issue. After all, premier Kathleen Wynne included the issue in her mandate letter to agriculture minister Jeff Leal.

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In July, Leal announced Ontario would restrict the pesticide by the 2015 planting season, a pledge he later retracted after furious farmers informed him they had already bought next year’s seed.

Then, in October, environmental commissioner Gord Miller recommended Ontario move toward banning the insecticide on its own, rather than waiting for Ottawa to act.

It’s worth noting that Ontario’s decision comes as Ottawa waits for two reports from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency: a summary of the 2014 planting season and the agency’s interim report of its review of neonicotinoids. Both reports are expected next year.

Then there’s the Registered Nurses of Ontario and a group called the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, whose membership includes doctors, health-care professionals and citizens. The groups are now warning that the pesticides could harm children’s health, despite conclusive science.

Pubic attention is mounting. In August, an Oracle poll found 87 per cent of Ontario residents felt something needed to be done about neonicotinoids, while 92 percent wanted the province to protect pollinators.

The Ontario government is in a tough spot.

A ban on neonicotinoids will resonate well with urban voters, many of whom have been inundated on public transit and social media with advertisements from various environmental groups warning them about “Ontario’s Killer Corn.”

However, the move is unlikely to win many favours in rural Ontario, which Wynne had previously pledged to better represent.

Remember, gaining support in rural Ontario was one of the reasons Wynne initially named herself agriculture minister when she was first elected in February 2013, a post she held until May 2014.

Corn and soybeans are Ontario’s two largest crops.

Statistics Canada said the province’s farmers planted a record three million acres of soybeans this year.

They planted another 1.9 million acres of corn, which was down 15 percent from last year, largely blamed on poor prices and delayed seeding thanks to a cold, wet spring.

Most of these acres are treated with neonicotinoid-treated seed, to the point where some seed suppliers in the province don’t even sell non-treated seed. Ninety-two to 95 percent of corn acres in Canada and the United States are treated with neon-icotinoids.

The province has made no assurances that enough non-treated seed will be available by the time the first restrictions are in place. Nor have officials committed that the non-treated seed will extend to the best varieties.

Then there are concerns about insurance liability, including who would be responsible during times of crop failure thanks to pests that would have previously been treated with neonicotinoids.

Nor have officials said who would be responsible for determining when and where neonicotinoids should be used.

The Ontario government has committed to working with industry to develop its new neonicotinoid framework.

With tensions between grain farmers and the government escalating, the outcomes of even those meetings are on shaky ground.

Several grain farmers, including officials with Grain Farmers of Ontario, have quietly told me they’re not sure it’s worth participating in the consultation process, given the province seems to have already made up its mind.

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