Feds delay decision on proposed neonic ban

Neonicotinoid insecticides are used on tens of millions of acres of cropland in Canada.  |  File photo

Health Canada is reviewing new evidence compiled by Agriculture Canada and expects an ‘update’ in January

In January, Health Canada may make its final decision on neonics.

Or, maybe not.

Health Canada was expected to decide on the safety of neonicotinoid insecticides in December, but now it said it will provide an “update” in January.

“Health Canada … proposed to cancel the majority of outdoor uses of all three neonicotinoids (because) of the risks to aquatic insects. Since then, several new scientific papers have been published and the department has received additional information and comments from the public, provinces, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s water monitoring working group,” a department spokesperson said.

“Health Canada is currently reviewing the submitted information and plans to provide a status update in January.”

The phrase “status update” is significant.

Health Canada scientists may need more time before they reach a decision on neonics.

“I’m not even sure it’s going to be the final decision…. It might be just an update,” said Pierre Petelle, president and chief executive officer of CropLife Canada. “If they’ve got lots of data to go through, I think they want to make the right decision instead of a speedy one.”

Neonicotinoid insecticides are used on tens of millions of acres of cropland in Canada. The three main products are imidacloprid and clothianidin, made by Bayer, and thiamethoxam, a Syngenta product. The neonics, as they are commonly known, are applied as seed treatments to almost every corn and canola seed in Canada and a portion of soybean seeds. They are also sprayed on fruit, vegetables and berry crops.

In 2016, Health Canada proposed to phase out all agricultural uses of imidacloprid because the insecticides were accumulating in ponds, creeks and other water bodies near agricultural land.

In 2018, Health Canada made the same phase-out recommendation for thiamethoxam and clothianidin.

“Current research shows that these pesticides are detected frequently in water bodies at levels that could be harmful to certain aquatic organisms,” Health Canada said earlier this year.

If neonics are harming midges and mayflies, it could pose a threat to birds and other animals that rely on the insects for food.

The crop protection industry and farm groups protested the decision, arguing there’s little evidence that midges or mayflies are dying off.

Some scientists also weighed in, saying Health Canada relied too heavily on computer modelling to conclude that neonics were a threat to aquatic insects.

Subsequent water testing, done in 2017 and 2018, indicated the amount of neonics in water bodies is extremely low.

If Health Canada accounts for the new information, the department might back away from its neonic ban.

However, a University of Saskatchewan study, published this September in a prestigious journal, Science, could also tip the scales.

In a field experiment conducted in Ontario, U of S scientists exposed white-crowned sparrows to imidacloprid. When the wild sparrows consumed seeds coated with the insecticide, the birds lost weight and the exposure halted their migration.

“We saw these effects using doses well within the range of what a bird could realistically consume in the wild — equivalent to eating just a few treated seeds,” said Margaret Eng, a post-doctoral fellow in the U of S Toxicology Centre and lead author of the study.

“Both of these results seem to be associated with the appetite suppression effect of imidacloprid. The dosed birds ate less food, and it’s likely that they delayed their flight because they needed more time to recover and regain their fuel stores.”

CropLife said in September it supports research into product safety.

But the U of S study exaggerates the risk to birds.

“It appears that the doses administered in this most recent study are … well above what songbirds might realistically be exposed to under real world conditions,” Petelle said.

“Without (realistic exposures), these studies create unnecessary confusion within the industry, for regulators and for the public.”

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