With “Friends” Like These, Agriculture Must Stay Vigilant

Agriculture is getting better at not ignoring or dismissing smear campaigns, just because it doesn’t like them (i.e. A&W, Panera bread). So in that light, it also shouldn’t roll its eyes at Friends of the Earth and its new survey that, according to the organization, shows Ontarians want “honey bee carnage” stopped.

There are good reasons to pay this group heed.

First, the survey shows the kind of nonsense that could lead to public policy being created against farmers. And no one is going to fix this if agriculture doesn’t do it themselves. The so-called friends – whose acronym, FOE, accurately describes their relationship to modern farmers – asked 1,000 Ontarians if they thought bees were important to agriculture in the province.

No surprise, 8 out of 10 said yes.

Then they went on to ask if respondents think farmers’ use of neonicotinoid pesticides (popularly called neonics) should be suspended, to protect bees.

Of course, most people chime in with another yes, even though I doubt most know what a neonic is. It sounds like it could be nasty, though. And it’s pretty easy to villainize anything using this line of questioning in surveys, especially if the respondents don’t know what they’re talking about.

After that, the surveyors ask if respondents think Ontario should suspend neonics, like Europe.

Well, sure, why not, say another eight of 10. Europe must have had its reasons…even if they didn’t know Europe has a moratorium on neonics, and even if, once again, respondents don’t know anything about neonics.

Nonetheless, with those responses in hand, FOE issues a news release today – just before the Premier is about to receive recommendations from a working group on bee health — declaring most Ontarians want the “honey bee carnage” to stop.

Overall, I’m sure most people want carnage of any type to stop — if indeed it exists. Although I wasn’t surveyed, I’m among the 80 per cent of Ontarians who think bees are important to agriculture (as an aside, I wonder what the other 20 per cent think?).

But I want to make my own decision about whether there’s carnage, and I don’t trust FOE to lead me down a path.

An expert who’s piped up in a timely way lately is UK scientist Dr. Helen Thompson. For just the past two months, she’s worked as the scientific expert to global crop and pesticide giant Syngenta, based in its UK office.

But before that, for 22 years she was the leader of the environmental risk team at the UK Department of Food and Environmental Research agency, entrusted with (among other things) helping find a balance between pesticide use and wildlife. She works on the honeybee file, asking the same kinds of questions being asked in Ontario today.

She was the plenary speaker at Guelph’s annual pest management conference today, an appearance that couldn’t have been more timely.

Based on her experiences in Europe – where indeed some countries have instituted a moratorium on neonicotinoids – she’s urging Ontario to take a broad view of the problem.

In keeping with the province’s current, measured approach, she says a deeper understanding of the problem is needed. For example, while some beekeepers report catastrophic losses, others say bee colonies in Ontario have actually increased by 50 per cent over the past decade that farmers have been using neonicotinoids here.

Let’s find out for sure what’s going on.

And let’s be sure of the culprit. Given Thompson’s employer is a chemical company, you could understand why should would point out the myriad of other problems that plague bees.

And there are indeed some nasty ones, such as parasites called varroa mites, for which neither bees nor science have any defence at this time, and have been ravaging hives worldwide for the past 20 years or so. They spread a virus that basically renders bees unable to fly.

And it also turns out that during any given year, up to 20 per cent of the hive, or even more, can simply have a natural die off. In the UK, Thompson found it was worse during long, damp winters, when bees are subject to diseases that naturally occur in such environments.

None of this shows up in purposefully worded polls, nor in suspect news releases announcing their predictable results. But if the public doesn’t hear what farmers think of all this, unbalanced attitudes are not only possible, there’s probable.

Keep up the fight. Unfortunately, not everyone is a friend of agriculture.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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