Neonic hearings get variety of opinions

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency’s decision last fall to phase out imidacloprid within three to five years continues to reverberate through the agricultural community.

The House of Commons agriculture committee began examining the issue during meetings last week, although the PMRA is a Health Canada agency.

The PMRA made its decision based on harmful effects of the neonicotinoid insecticide on aquatic environments, using data from governments and academics, executive director Richard Aucoin told the committee March 7. Studies of two other neonics are underway.

However, growers told the committee they don’t have good alternatives to the neonic, which is used to control pests on fruit and vegetable crops, in greenhouses and on field crops.

They worry they will be forced to apply more chemical and at higher cost.

Environmental organizations said they want the ban to come sooner.

And chemical companies say the PMRA didn’t use correct science to reach its decision.

“High levels of imidacloprid found cannot be traced to a specific use on a specific crop, and we really have no alternative regulatory instruments available to us to effectively address such a broad risk issue, other than cancelling the authorization,” Aucoin said.

He said the PMRA has received hundreds of thousands of comments from the public on the proposed phase-out and extended the consultation period by one month to March 23.

Neonics drew considerable attention after large bee die-offs a few years ago and the Ontario government moved to regulate use. The PMRA continues to study that issue, but has said the effects on bees are likely manageable.

Conservative agriculture critic David Anderson questioned whether the PMRA was using science or politics to make its decision. He said the Ontario government reacted to public pressure rather than science, and he worried the same thing is happening again.

Anderson said too many stakeholders were left out of the process that led to the ban.

“There’s a decision that has been made that looks like it’s political, not scientific,” he said.

“I’m just wondering why it was done in the way it was.”

He asked if the PMRA had “real world data” to indicate aquatic species are being adversely affected.

Scott Kirby, director general of the PMRA’s environmental assessment directorate, replied that the agency “virtually never” does get that type of information.

He said the onus is on the chemical registrants to give the PMRA the information so it can make decisions on acceptable risk, leading Anderson to charge that they were left out of the discussion until after the decision was made.

Bayer vice-president Paul Thiel said the PMRA disregarded more than 20 studies it provided. Bayer developed imidacloprid.

In response to the November decision, Agriculture Canada established a multi-stakeholder forum on neonicotinoids.

Andrea Johnston, director general of the department’s sector development and analysis directorate, said the forum has met twice and established working groups looking at environmental monitoring, risk mitigation and alternatives to neonics.

“It seems like those work groups are the cart after the horse,” observed Liberal MP Lloyd Longfield. “We could have had work groups to inform the decision versus having work groups to try and reverse or defend the agriculture positions.”

Grain Farmers of Ontario chair Mark Brock said the forum is working well but members are still concerned about alternatives to neonics.

“The Conference Board of Canada determined that the impact of not having access to neonic seed treatments would cost $600 million annually to corn and soybean farmers in Ontario alone,” he said.

Craig Hunter, pesticide adviser to the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, said there have been no resistance issues with neonics, but there is that possibility with alternative insecticides that offer narrower control.

He also said he had concerns about the PMRA review process.

“I have many other comments on what I feel about the review, how it was done, the lack of time for meaningful input into the process, the lack of time to conduct new research to question some of the decisions made by the PMRA, and their undue haste to publish a final decision by December of this year, nine months after our final comments are in,” Hunter said. “That’s a full 12 months earlier than most of the re-evaluations over the past several years.”

Meanwhile, the Canadian Honey Council and the Ontario Beekeepers Association remain at odds over neonics.

Council executive director Rod Scarlett told the committee beekeepers are concerned about the alternatives to neonics and noted that working co-operatively has led to better management practices by farmers using imidacloprid to lessen any impacts on bees.

However, the Ontario association sent a letter to the committee noting it is in favour of accelerating the phase-out to this fall.

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