Does rushing decisions with poor data qualify as “sound science?”

Why is the PMRA in such a rush if the evidence against neonic seed treatments is weak and partial?

Farmers generally support using sound science as the basis for regulatory decisions on agriculture, including pesticide approvals and bans.

They support sound science being the basis of Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency. In fact, I was told that Monday by the Canola Council of Canada. Most policy-involved farmers have tended to think highly of the PMRA because of this.

But what I’ve found most unsettling about the PMRA’s proposed blanket ban on two neonicotinoids, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, is the seeming rush to ban important tools for Western Canadian farmers based on data it admits is “less robust” than that for Ontario and Quebec.

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“In some areas there was much more monitoring data and it was more robust, such as in Ontario, (and) in other areas the monitoring data was not as robust, and this was the case for Western Canada,” said Scott Kirby, the PMRA’s Director-General of the Environmental Assessment Directorate.

Since the main crops using neonics out east employ them differently, in a manner generally accepted as having a higher risk of spreading into the environment, it doesn’t seem appropriate to assume the situation there can be simply plugged into assumptions about Western Canada.

I’ve also been unsettled by the PMRA’s apparent comfort with proposing a ban on products that are used on tens of millions of acres without considering the environmental consequences of the alternative chemicals and farming methods farmers will employ if they loses access to the neonics.

“We don’t do a comparative risk assessment of alternative chemicals. If they are registered, they are considered safe to use,” said Kirby. Since banning neonics will almost certainly lead to much more insecticide use, done in a way that  kills many more insects, and lead to much more machinery use, doing a comparative risk assessment would seem fitting, wouldn’t it?

Beyond those two strange elements was a third head-scratcher for me: the argument that not proving that neonic seed treatments on canola are hurting midges, mayflies and other aquatic insects can still be valid grounds for a ban if the agency believes there is a theoretical risk based on modelling.

“That information that we had available to us was not sufficient to show acceptable risk to aquatic organisms, so because of this we are proposing phasing out these chemicals,” Kirby said.

Ummm . . . So we’ve gone from needing to prove a risk to needing to prove there is not acceptable risk, when the agency admits it doesn’t have great data upon which to rely.

The PMRA still seems to be dedicated to a scientific approach and does not appear to be politicized. The PRMA media call was nicely free of spin, with Kirby seeming up-front and frank about the agency’s reasoning, both in responses to questions from urban media wondering why the PRMA wasn’t moving faster to ban and from agricultural media wondering why the agency wasn’t being more cautious. That’s reason for hope that the production of better data and analysis could cause the agency to modify its proposed bans.

But I think there are still serious questions to ask about whether something in the way PMRA operates has changed that is causing it to make decisions with inadequate data, on too-short timelines, and involving reverse onuses on approved products. Maybe it’s always been this way, but something feels weird here.

(I talk about the decision on the Between the Rows podcast this week. Listen to it here or through your favourite podcatcher.)


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  • Denise

    We lost access to” sound science”,right out of the gate, when neonic-coated seeds were permitted to be sold on the market without proper long term testing of its effects on the soil,water, earthworms,micro-organisms,beneficial insects ,birds, aquatic life etc.
    The ” Precautionary Priniciple”, first rule in science, was ignored in favour of corporate greed and profits at any cost to people and our environment.
    Farmers bought into it, thinking the scientific research was properly done with reliable and verifiable results.
    They were told to “believe the science”, toted by the corporate ag industry.
    When has allowing the foxes to guard the henhouse ever worked out?
    Who in their right state of mind( government) would take corporate industry at their word when they say they have done the proper,unbiased research?
    Health Canada (PMRA) is finally waking up to the reality of what is happening here.
    If this link on the chain of life is broken, there will be catastrophic results.
    Let’s hope the USA follows Canada’s lead real soon, before the damage is irreversable.

  • ron

    actually there is proof neonics kill bees, do you not know that without bees you will have on crops. Don’t you think you spray enough poison on your land as it is, actually 4x more now than in the past. Your soil is becoming dead with no nutrients left leaving your products void of nutrition, that should be of greater concern to you all. you are poisoning the population not feeding them. time for you all to wake up and change your farming practices before it’s too late

    • Just curious, Ron, do you farm?

      Also, in response to your link to the Fox story on glyphosate in breakfast cereal, I think you might find this of interest:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Paul – WP web editor

      • ron

        just curious paul…do you enjoy eating roundup or feeding it to your kids. and your link you provided is a corporation service company that protects global brands…so please that site is a joke. p.s. nobody should be forced to eat roundup even trace amounts without their knowledge.

      • neil

        Wow Ed you got roasted ! I don’t think there is anything I can say about your article or my farming methods without being severely criticized by the above three people so I will just leave it at that.

  • richard

    Ed, just for one journalistic minute ask yourself if industry had applied sound science would we ever have been introduced to the spectre of: DDT, lindane, mercury as a seed treatment……ractopamine, zilmax, antibiotics as a prophylactic…..dioxins, PCBs, arsenic as an anitparasitic……atrazine, glyphosate and now Neo nicotinoids?…….NO! Try critical thinking instead of corporate activism …please!

  • ed

    Usually there is a rush to get a new produce in, maybe helped with some under the table money??? Now they are condemned for getting in a hurry to reverse a bad decision??? A little money will likely turn into some kind of a new scientific evidence on this one too. Who knows the real story right. It is all a very big mystery!


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