The Buzz on Neonicotinoids: In Ontario It Just Got Real

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This fall season has been so difficult it is hard for me to remember planting last spring.   Last winter during the winter meeting season you couldn’t pass go without hearing about neonicotinoids and the bees.   Of course there was much talk about pollinator mortality with neonicotinoids seemingly being the culprit.  Many of our farm organizations wanted to make sure we were being proactive with regard to coming to a science-based solution where everybody would win.  Unfortunately, that blew up in last week when the provincial government announced that they want to reduce the use of neonicotinoids on corn and soybeans by 80% by 2017.    Almost on cue, Ontario farm country erupted in anger.

The chairman of the Grain Farmers of Ontario in a news release said this new regulation is unfounded, impractical, and unrealistic and the government does not know how to implement it.  He went on to say with this announcement, “agriculture and rural Ontario has been put on notice- the popular vote trumps science and practicality”.  Those are strong words coming from the chair of the Grain Farmers of Ontario.  In the news release they referred to the best management practices followed by the 28,000-grain farmers in Ontario last year.  A new fluency agent was used to minimize possible seed treatment exposure to bees and in 2014 that resulted in 70% less bee deaths.

Unfortunately, it would seem that the provincial government had an agenda of its own led by the Minister of the Environment and Climate change.   For whatever reason, Ontario has taken a position that will create a “neonicotinoid island” in the middle of North America, the logistics of which I cannot even imagine.  However, this government, which was just elected, has all the power to get it done, despite the specter that it is so impractical with the rest of North America not on board.  As I’ve said many times, this is an agricultural economic issue, based on science.  However, when good science meets bad agricultural economics, good science loses.  In this case we have a government overreaching to try and attain something, which might seem virtuous, but the agricultural economic fallout to Ontario farmers may be in the millions.

I do not know how we will reduce neonicotinoid use 80% by 2017.  I do know that many agricultural people are angry, focusing much of that anger toward a government, which Toronto elected.  I chafe on that reasoning, as the good people in Toronto are just as Canadian as I am.  There were lots of people in rural Ontario who voted Liberal and NDP and regardless of where you live in this province we are in this together.   Simply put, looking ahead, name-calling doesn’t do Ontario agriculture any good.  This proposed reduction in neonicotinoids by 2017 is just our latest challenge.

The problems with this reduction in neonicotinoids do not end in the science.  In fact, I like to ignore the science as I think it is purely an agricultural economic question.  Go into any Canadian grocery store and you’ll see honey blends from Argentina and Australia mixed together in cute packages.  It’s a cheap food policy in spades and in my mind that is the biggest problem the beekeepers have in Canada.  Neonicotinoids may surely cause beekeepers some angst, but at the end of the day all that cheap imported honey is a bigger problem.

The problem with Ontario being a neonicotinoids island within North America is the hypocrisy it may present.  Ontario farmers may not be allowed to use neonicotinoids, but how about the imported grain into Ontario.  It will have been grown from seeds treated with neonicotinoids.  Is that good with the provincial government?   It could lead to segregated markets for grain, raising costs but also frustration.  It simply lacks practicality and any law that can’t be enforced makes little sense.

There is also the direct economic fallout of reduced crop yield in Ontario from the loss of neonicotinoids, which could run in the millions of dollars.  It will also make Ontario farmers less competitive with our American neighbors.  In fact, it will make us less competitive with places like Québec and Manitoba.  It’s just getting to be a very long story.

I don’t want to let “Big Ag” off the hook with this one either.  It is completely obvious that big Ag has a vested interest in maintaining neonicotinoids seed treatments on various crops.  According to Omafra 99% of corn is treated with neonicotinoids, 65% of soybeans and 25-33% of cereals.  This represents big profits for them, partly garnered by reducing farmer choice.  Lots of the noise about neonicotinoids comes from them.  Obviously they don’t want to lose this golden goose.

So here we go, the name-calling is just starting.  However, can we lower the temperature a bit?  This neonicotinoid issue in my opinion shouldn’t be “the” major issue in Ontario agriculture.  In my mind, creating a market structure to add value to Ontario grain makes so much more sense.  At a certain point, you’ve got to quit looking in the rear view mirror and look ahead.  This is the latest bizarre policy decision de jour that impacts agriculture.  Its challenge, and I’m sure we’ll come out on the other side.

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