National water testing needed to improve government policy

Government policy on environmental issues must be tied to hard science, and it must consider what is necessary and practical.

To that end, without a long-term, national water-quality testing program, we risk placing an unnecessary burden on farmers in Western Canada with blanket measures that are not warranted.

Last week, The Western Producer’s front-page story highlighted the need for a nationwide water-testing program. Almost 70 million acres of crops are seeded every year in Western Canada. Along with that go the required herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. Yet Environment Canada does not extensively test ponds, wetlands and creeks across the Prairies for pesticides.

Since it’s generally accepted that surface waterways in the West contain some level of pesticides, it makes sense to test our most precious natural resource. Without testing, government policy may creep into overkill.

We need only to look at the difference in approaches to the neonicotinoid issue by the Ontario and federal governments to see how scientific measurements can affect policy.

In November 2014, Ontario proposed an 80 percent reduction in use of neonicotinoids — a pesticide applied to corn and canola seeds and some soybean seeds — to protect bees, despite no reliable data tying the chemical to bee deaths. Farmers were dismayed by the decision.

Two years later, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency announced that testing in some waterways showed levels of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid insecticide, were high enough to affect aquatic insects. The federal agency recommended a phase-out of imidacloprid over three to five years.

Environmental modelling, backed up by hard data from water testing in Ontario and Quebec, was deemed pivotal in the findings. Grain Farmers of Canada, which opposed Ontario’s ban on neonicotinoids, accepted Health Canada’s decision because it was based on science.

Still, at least one environmental sciences expert said even that total phase-out may be too much. Higher levels of neonicotinoids were mainly found closer to horticultural operations. Many of the other areas tested were at much lower levels.

Neonicotinoid use is less intensive on the Prairies. Data on how much gets into surface water is inadequate because testing in Western Canada is patchy.

Is it necessary for prairie farmers to accept the burden of finding other ways to deal with insects because of high levels of imidacloprid in the waterways near greenhouses in Ontario?

Are such blanket policies needed? After all, it’s the farmer who tends to get hit with the final cost of government policy.

And how much more are consumers willing to pay for food? Evidence suggests there is limited tolerance for higher prices.

When making predictions about pesticides in water, Health Canada relies heavily on predictive modelling, but without regular testing how can we be sure that the modelling is accurate?

It is not good scientific practice to rely on the limited testing now conducted on prairie waterways. Effective and practical policy on water and chemical management can arise only from a national sampling program to study surface water conditions.

At a time when science is being questioned, it’s up to the scientific community to ensure data is used — and used properly. We must not adhere to the precautionary principle and thus make government policy based on those models. Proof, based on data, is the gold standard.

That requires a rigorous, long-term, national water-testing program.

Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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