Ontarians have good reason to be concerned over the increasing number of bee deaths and the overall decrease in numbers of our native pollinators - deaths linked to the use of neonicotinoids (NNI), a relatively new class of systemic pesticides.
By Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko
Published January 28, 2015
Bees pollinate our crops. That's why Ontarians have good reason to be concerned over the increasing number of bee deaths and the overall decrease in numbers of our native pollinators - deaths linked to the use of neonicotinoids (NNI), a relatively new class of systemic pesticides.
"With five million acres of treated soybean and corn seed, there is much more concentration of this pesticide in Ontario than anywhere else in Canada," says Dennis Edell, Board member of the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA). Ontario grows 70 percent of the country's corn and soy.
"There is no where to place a hive in all this. It makes it very hard to make a living as a beekeeper," Edell says.
What's more, Edill says that they've had to import over 33,000 queen bees into Ontario last year due to lack of queen vitality: "That's one of the effects of pesticide poisoning. We lost 60 percent of our hives over winter." Typically, the count for winter loses in Ontario is between 15 percent to 20 percent.
Since queens survive winter to initiate the spring hive, the loss of the queens is particularly significant.
Edill reports that the OBA is very pleased that the Wynne government is regulating in the public interest (environment and food sovereignty first) and invoking the precautionary principle in its proposal to reduce the use of the NNI by 80 percent by 2017.
"It's a very courageous move given the pushback from players like the Grain Farmers of Ontario and seed corporations," Edell says.
The precautionary principle - the theory that if the effects of a product are unknown, then the product should not be used - is what groups like the National Farm Union (NFU) recommend as the best approach to regulate agrochemicals and new technologies like genetically modified (GM) crops.
They go further, recommending that a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed be implemented as soon as possible in both Ontario and Quebec.
The NFU supports the Ontario government's proposal to promote Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to address crop pest problems. IPM is a process to solve pest problems through a number of different management approaches.
"The use of chemical pesticides may be used, but as a last resort when other approaches don't work and when the pests reach an economically harmful level," says Ann Slater, NFU Vice President of Policy.
"We would like to see more public interest research and extension services devoted to IPM practices in Ontario crops," Slater continues.
"For that to happen, more financial resources need to be allocated to the Ontario Ministry and Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs so that it can provide on-the-ground support to farmers as they implement more IPM practices on their farms."
Stefan Weber works for St. Williams Nursery and Biodiversity Centre (SWNEC) in St. Williams, Ontario. "What really worries me about neonicotinoid misuse is the countless other, non-target species that are being affected. There's good evidence to show that neonicotinoids can persist in aquatic environments for much longer than originally thought, and damage whole food chains," Weber says.
Weber explains that from an industry perspective it's difficult to convince everyone to support the regulation of neonicotinoids because historically, this group of pesticides was viewed as a vast improvement to the previous generation of chemicals. Because it affected insects more than mammals, it was much safer for use in greenhouses.
"We use chemical insecticides as a last resort, and have not had to use neonics for almost two years," Weber says. The SWNEC uses a very small amount of chemical, compared to many large-scale greenhouses, and when they do, it's never the same active ingredient twice.
Cycling between products is important for ensuring pests don't build up resistance. "We also push the plants outside in the summer and let nature deal with the pests," Weber says, "there are birds and wasps and spiders that do a lot of unpaid work for us."
Weber asserts that neonicotinoids can be a useful tool to manage potentially devastating outbreaks of insect pests: there are neonicotinoids in flea drops for pets. It's useful and relatively safe to humans and cats.
In the case of agricultural and horticultural use, however, Weber argues that the grower should have to demonstrate through a permitting process a need for such an extreme measure, and that the grower should have to monitor and report on its use to the proper authorities.
"The answer isn't as simple as banning them completely," Weber says, although he agrees that total use should be scaled back immensely to avoid further damaging non-target ecosystems. "Ultimately massive pest outbreaks are a result mono-culture and other modern farm practices," Weber says.
"A cornfield is an unnatural habitat that fosters the spread of pests, but there are about 6 other steps one should go through before arriving at "pesticide" when thinking about dealing with the problem."
The deadline for comments from the public on the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change's Pollinator Health proposal (on the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry) has passed.
Ontarians are looking forward to a positive outcome and an implementation of the plan.
For more information on creating a habitat for pollinators in Hamilton, visit the Hamilton Pollinator Paradise Project website.
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