Public pressure weighs on proposal to ban neonics

On Aug. 15 at 1 p.m., eastern time, Health Canada held a news conference to explain why it was banning neonicotinoid insecticides.

The first question from the media was telling.

“What took so long?… We’ve heard, for years, about the effects of (these) pesticides on pollinators and other insects,” Eric Atkins of the Globe and Mail asked in a tone suggesting the federal government should have banned the insecticides years ago.

Questions like that illustrate the gap that exists between the general public’s opinion and the opinion many in the agriculture sector have about the harm caused by neonic pesticides.

Last week, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency proposed a three- to five-year “phase out” of two neonicotinoids: clothianidin, a Bayer product and thiamethoxam, a Syngenta insecticide.

The two neonics are widely used in agriculture and are applied to nearly every corn seed and canola seed planted in Canada and a portion of soybean seeds.

Scott Kirby, director general of the environmental assessment directorate at the PMRA, told Atkins that the neonicotinoid ban is related to the threat to aquatic insects. The neonics are accumulating in ponds and creeks at levels that are a threat to mayflies, midges and the fish and birds that rely on those insects for food.

Kirby’s answer wasn’t satisfactory to other reporters on the call, who were perplexed about the lack of information about bees.

Several asked why Health Canada was talking about aquatic insects, when the real issue with neonics is bees.

In the spring of 2012, hundreds of bee colonies died in Ontario after the bees were exposed to neonic-contaminated dust from corn planters, provoking media stories about bee-killing pesticides. A couple years later, the Ontario government restricted the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments on corn and soybean crops to protect pollinators. As well, the European Union banned the use of neonics, cementing the idea that neonics are a massive threat to bees.

Meanwhile, honeybee numbers have increased in Canada over the last five years. Many entomologists and beekeepers have said that varroa mites, diseases related to mites and cold winters are a much bigger threat to bees than neonics. One compared it to a boat with 20 holes. Banning neonics would plug one hole, but there would still be 19 holes in the boat.

Such arguments appear to have little influence on the conversations around neonics, particularly in Ontario, where media and social networking sites continue to express concerns that heighten unproven links between neonics as they are now being used and bee deaths.

“You state that the five-year phase out is necessary to allow for development of alternative products,” said Tom Korski, managing editor with Blacklock’s Reporter, a publication in Ottawa. “The environmental community… have said that’s not your job, respectfully, Mr. Kirby. There’s a department of agriculture to look after farmers. You’re a regulator for the environment and health. Forget about what’s good for agriculture (in) Canada. Why would you care whether growers can come up with safe alternatives or not? Why don’t you just do your job?”

As public pressure to ban neonic use builds, many in Canada’s agriculture industry don’t understand the need.

In December, Health Canada said that clothianidin and thiamethoxam, when used as foliar spray, are a threat to bees when applied before or during bloom for berry crops, legumes and fruit-bearing vegetables. But use as a seed treatment is not a risk to bees.

“We are disappointed with the PMRA’s proposed special review decisions for clothianidin and thiamethoxam,” CropLife Canada said in a statement. “This is especially disappointing and confusing to many, given that earlier … the PMRA released a seemingly contradictory proposed decision validating the safety of both of these products to pollinators as seed treatments, which is one of their primary uses.”

Both sides of the debate will have an opportunity to submit comments to the PMRA on the proposed phase-out of neonics during a public consultation phase that lasts until the middle of November.

Health Canada is expected to announce its final decision at the end of 2019.

Given that 2019 is a federal election year, it’s possible that the agriculture-urbanite divide on neonics could become campaign issue next summer and fall.

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