Ontario’s Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Sends Shivers Thru Farm Country

Using the word stupid is something I take very seriously when I write the Agridome.   I must admit when it came to Earth Day yesterday and the Ontario government announced their new law banning cosmetic use of pesticides the word stupid came to my mind.  However, just like a lot of things in this world I quickly put it in my back pocket reserving it for another day when I once again measure Canadian agricultural policy.  The new ban on cosmetic pesticides in Ontario is certainly misguided but it’s a long way from stupid.

I always walk on eggshells whenever I talk about pesticides in agriculture.  For instance as most of you know I farm about 860 acres in southwestern Ontario and I am licensed by the Ontario government to legally apply herbicides on my farm.  It is actually a job that I have done since I volunteered to be the spray man as a young adolescent on the farm many years ago.  I never use the word stupid when it comes to pesticide bans because I often thought if they put me under a microscope I’d glow-in-the-dark because of all the different herbicides I’ve applied through the years.

Of course most of us in farm country don’t think quite that way.  Pesticides in our mind are part of the production process which guarantees us profit and at the same time gives consumers exactly what they want, cheap food.  That inherent truth is sacrosanct in every farmer’s mind.  As this week gets started most of us will be out in the field trying to get some work done and that surely will involve many farm sprayers across the North American farm belt.

Needless to say the world doesn’t think like we do.  When Ontario Premier McGuinty announced his intentions of enacting a cosmetic pesticide ban I remember very clearly what he said.  He said that the children of Ontario have the right to roll in the grass just like we did many years ago.  Of course what he was referring to was the grass of the 1950s and early 60s when dandelions were common as the air we breathe.  The point he was making was through the years that have all changed with the increased use of cosmetic pesticides and Ontario’s children are being exposed.  On his watch he doesn’t want to take responsibility for that and he wants to bring some semblance of consistency to the mishmash of municipal regulations sprouting up across the province.

It certainly is a noble goal.  However like many noble goals there will certainly be a lot of ramifications from his good intentions.  There are issues with regard to NAFTA, the limiting of new product registrations and possibly big brother coming down on the future use of pesticides on Ontario farms.

For instance, under NAFTA companies can challenge new laws, which adversely affect them without compensation.  In Québec, Dow AgriSciences is doing just that, mounting a challenge under NAFTA in response to Québec banning of one of their chemicals.  The same thing could happen in Ontario or any other province.  It presents the juicy situation where the federal government would be defending a Québec law and the new Ontario law, which prohibits chemicals, which their own Health Canada scientists say, is perfectly safe.  It is a gross example of how political expediency gets in the way of sound science.

However, is that stupid?  Earlier in this piece I raised the question about my own exposure to pesticides over a 35-year career in agriculture.  I have a neighbor who farms more than double the land that I do.  He is also a professional pesticide applicator who does a great job for local farmers in our area.  In the past I’ve asked him if he ever is concerned about his own exposure to pesticides.  He is always answered my queries with an exhaustive knowledge of everything he sprays and the safety precautions that he exhaustively takes.  I’ve always been thoroughly impressed with his answers.  However at the end of the day I guess nobody really knows how the exposure through the years does affect the farmers in our area regardless of the many precautions we take.  That’s why I have a real problem with calling these types of pieces of legislation stupid.  They certainly don’t rank up there with the CAIS program.

Still, laws like this can make things messy.  What happens if somebody runs with this and it does start affecting pesticide availability in agriculture?  What happens if chemicals like glyphosate and others become a news story overnight from some rogue Internet media source and pressure mounts to get rid of them altogether?  Clearly, the lines are being drawn in this debate and the Ontario cosmetic pesticide ban is only one example of how it can go all wrong.

Back in the day I used to like to tell the story about how I started spraying herbicides.  We used a chemical called Treflan, which invariably turned my young hands yellow.  After that we used something called Metribuzon.   I sprayed it with an open cab tractor for many years.  I knew I was getting the right amount on when it smelled right.  I still shake my head about that one.  I guess when you’re young you think you are invincible.

So do I think Ontario’s new cosmetic ban on pesticides is stupid?  No, not really.  Misguided maybe, but the real answers of the effects of pesticides on the human condition lie in the future.   Sure in agriculture we have reduced pesticide use 50% over the last decade.  However, as I get older I never say never and when it comes to pesticide exposure I never mix in the word stupid.  Glowing in the dark is something I thought I’d never do.

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