Lyndsey Smith is the editor of Real Agriculture.
Lyndsey Smith is the editor of Real Agriculture.

Yesterday, the Ontario premier’s office and the ministry of the environment and climate change revealed its plan to restrict the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments. The goal, referred to as “aspirational,” is to reduce the number of Ontario corn and soybean acres planted with the seed treatment by 80% by the year 2017. The details of the new rules, regulations and certification for using the pesticide will be determined by July of 2015, the province says, following a two month consultation process running through December, 2014, and January, 2015.

You’ll note I didn’t say that the ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs is proposing this plan, even though, yes, technically it is. Want to know why? Because from what I saw yesterday, OMAFRA isn’t the lead on this even a little — premier Kathleen Wynne and her environment minister, Glen Murray, are. And if I were Jeff Leal, minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, or an Ontario farmer, I’d be feeling more than a little bullied at this point.

That this isn’t being driven by OMAFRA is a significant point, and speaks to the challenge ahead for farmers. It’s one thing to have to deal with changes and increased regulation stemming from your own ministry — a ministry that should understand and respect the complexity of your industry. It’s another beast to be expected to morph and fall in line with the demands of a ministry that is only handing down demands and not offering up any help on the solutions side. Mix in a bit of blatant ignorance of (or disregard for, I can’t tell which it is) farming and agriculture, and we’ve got ourselves a hot mess.

Farmers are, understandably, upset over the coming regulations. Wynne and Murray are busy patting themselves on the back and reminding voters how great they are, while simultaneously disregarding what it means on the ground for farmers and the environment. How so? Read on.

What Wynne and Murray, and apparently most of the Ontario government, fail to grasp is how growing food actually works. What really gets me worked up in all of this is the total disregard for biological systems — we can’t EVER view change or management of a farming system in isolation. I’ve written about this before, and Rob Wallbridge does a great job explaining the folly of ‘silver bullet mentality’ here, but somehow the concept of farming and agriculture being complex is lost in the politicians’ zeal to appease the idealistic masses. Every decision farmers make has a consequence — using tillage, not tilling, spraying, not spraying, a change in seeding rates, variety selection, crop rotation…row spacing…do I need to continue? You can’t view neonic use as a single item, just as a ban or near-ban fails to address the entire issue.

A near-ban on neonics fails to consider the reasons the products were introduced in the first place, and what beneficial aspects they offer over past products. A near-ban fails to account for how farmers may manage for targeted pests instead, perhaps through increased tillage or more foliar sprays. A near-ban fails to recognize the incredible amount of work already going in to adapting the farming operation to mitigate risks to pollinators (at farmers’ expense). This near-ban fails to account for the human element in both beekeeping and in neighbour relations. This near-ban also seems to fly in the face of Ontario’s own extension work, which stated the products are likely necessary on 30% of Ontario acres, and runs into trouble with Canada’s own regulatory system.

And what of our dear bees? Is the fact that farmers want continued access to neonics equivalent to disregarding bee health? Absolutely not, and here’s where pesky science comes in. Perhaps coincidentally, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) yesterday released an update of its ongoing evaluation of neonic usage and its impact on bee health. You can read it for yourself by following this link, but I’ll give you the Cole’s Notes version: neonics can impact bee health; how farmers use neonics can mitigate that risk. Several other factors contribute to bee health, including simple things like communication between farmers and beekeepers and what the beekeepers do with and to their hives. Weather also plays a role in bee health. Neonics are used in several other jurisdictions with high honeybee populations without incidents of neonic-linked bee death. What’s more, 72% of post-planting bee deaths in Ontario in 2014 were reported by a grand total of three beekeepers. THREE. Let that sink in.

My point is, that there are few farmers who would deny the importance or significance of bees to agriculture. Corn and soybean farmers heard of concerns regarding neonic usage, took them to heart, and in the spring climbed on the back of their planters and mixed in Fluency agent with hockey sticks, for crying out loud. If we’re looking for someone who is going to “Save the Bees!” I’d suggest we look no further than farmers themselves. Last time I checked, there was very little a city could do to support the livelihood of honey producers, as I’m pretty sure bees can’t forage on concrete and car exhaust.

Here’s what I want to see — I want to see Jeff Leal stand up for farmers and his ministry. I want ministers Murray and Leal to fully recognize and respect what farming entails, and the complexity of decisions made and actions taken on the farm in a growing season. I want Leal to fight for agriculture, for the necessity of science-based regulations, firmly rooted in practicality and reality. I want farmers to be respected as business people — people who are running a business vital to our very survival. We’re not talking about an industry that makes knick-knacks and throw pillows — we need food. Farmers grow food, but farmers can only stay in business if they’re profitable. Is banning one product going to bankrupt farmers? Of course not, but regulating an industry based on popular ideals is bad business and will absolutely have long-term impacts on the profitability of the sector.

Instead of bullying farmers and creating an adversary, I suggest Wynne et. al. give farmers the respect they deserve and recognize their boots-on-the-ground role in preserving not just pollinator health, but the health of our soils, waterways and food systems.

Farmers, for their part, also have to be willing to adopt new practices, adapt to change and adhere to sound stewardship practices. What’s more, the “Trust me, I’m a farmer” no longer carries the clout it once did — the masses have spoken, and the simply don’t accept your word as enough.

But if that’s what we as consumers expect of our farmers, we have to base changes to rules and regulations on more than public sentiment. Farmers deserve much more respect than that.

13 thoughts on “Grown-Up Bullying Alive and Well in Ontario as Farmers Get Steamrolled Over Neonics

  1. Excellent article! It’s mind-boggling how this debate has become nothing more than satisfying the cries of environmental activists and the uneducated pleas of their followers.

    The biggest problem I have is with the Ontario Beekeepers Association itself and its involvement in this. Their members are claiming neonics are destroying their businesses, regardless of evidence pointing to the contrary. The OBA has released “educational” videos on YouTube showing the problems with neonics, yet all I saw was a beekeeper misusing formic and oxalic acid on weak hives. Also, this same beekeeper wrote an article this fall in the Ontario Bee Journal preaching these same improper practices.

    Add in all the media coverage these beekeepers have received, and it becomes more obvious what their issues are. They are using bee equipment that is older than they are, in poor condition, and they are proud of that fact. How do they expect to be sustainable when they put very little time and money into maintaining and improving their operations.

    The Canadian Honey Council spent a year working with beekeepers, seed companies, etc. on a detailed list of recommendations to work towards a solution. The OBA spit in our faces and refused to consider the document. They did the same thing to the round table Ontario put together by their government. It consisted of beekeepers, farmers, seed companies and government, and once again the OBA dismissed it as neonic ban didn’t headline the report.

    If I recall, Ontario Grain Growers developed an app for farmers and beekeepers to use during seeding to prevent any risk of exposure to seed dust. Once the app was finished, the OBA decided they wanted nothing to do with it.

    Finally, at the OBA AGM last week they made very slanderous claims against the CHC executive director in a motion brought forward by its president and CHC representative. No fact was used in this motion, just lies and deception. And in true OBA fashion it passed.

    Now, the OBA is losing members and support in Ontario. A new organization has been formed there (Independant Commercial Beekeepers) and is gaining momentum. I hope it is enough to offset and replace the OBA.

    It is very apparent that the OBA isn’t an honest organization, and they have no interest in working with anyone that doesn’t support a total neonic ban. Hence why they are in bed with the Sierra Club and the Suzuki Foundation. In all honesty, they did what they set out to. The Ontario government and public fell for it hook, line and sinker.

    The truth is that it’ll be farmers that suffer, consumers that suffer, and the relationship between Ontario beekeepers and farmers is beyond repair now.

    I’m happy I live in Alberta.

  2. Amen Lyndsey. Decisions need to be made on sound science, therefore I have 2 of the approximately 100 with and without neonic corn plots planted across the province this year. The government’s direction leads me to believe that the results of these plots and all the work put into them by primary producers, researchers, technicians, and summer students, will be ignored. If sound science is ignored, what will they think of banning next?

    1. You raise two very important points: one, that Ontario farmers moved very quickly to participate and generate in-field data to help in managing risk, but for what? And, two, that this isn’t about neonics entirely, but about a popular topic with voters being used to improve a politician’s standing. What’s next?

  3. This problem is bigger than the annual crops being grown. Literature suggests the reach of neonics is far greater than expected. As a scientist/retired farmer I can’t justify using them in good conscious

      1. From my perspective agricultural use of neonics has affected insects on many levels (beyond pollination ones) coupled with research that suggests migration of the active component of the chemical in dryer soils(western Canadian soils) raises my concerns.

  4. Funny how both the OBA and the Ontario government make no mention of the PMRA report that was just released. I guess it doesn’t help their agenda when the report indicates the measures taken by farmers and seed companies in 2014 reduced incidents by 70%. And out of those beekeepers that reported an incident to PMRA, 72% were from 3 beekeepers in a localized region. Coincidence???

  5. While I have much criticism for this current Provincial Government on other issues: like the ramming of wind turbines down our throats even were we didn’t want them (Green Energy Act 2009) to severe cuts to the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF) in rural municipalities that will raise property taxes immensely to farmers, all of the blame for this does not rest with the Government.
    Also to blame is Bayer and the seed companies for not having corn seed available without the seed treatment and sometimes I couldn’t buy soybean seed without the treatment until the issue was big in the headlines this past year or two. There were many times I did not want my seed treated but could not buy it that way. I was being forced to spend the $12. plus per acre. This was greed on their part so all I can say is greed will get you every time. Just like Monsanto raising the price of RR technology now that they have 80% of the market. Another reason why I grow IP soybeans. When companies start thinking of society other then themselves maybe Governments will not have to take such drastic actions because of potential harm when alarm bells go off!

  6. Lindsay : The devil is always in the details…like your article…buut the problems as I see them ….farmers HAVE (or I should say their SPOKESMAN organizations) been bullying consumers for a long time …aand are continuing to do so and are now getting blowback or some of their own back in their faces…we currently TALK sound science but if read and go for the actual referenced citations and evaluate them with a neutral bias you realize both groups cherry pick and grandstand for populist appeal….this in the long run always comes back in their faces and crediblity suffers…. I AM a farmer….not a cheerleader for any company…! and I want to utilize SOUND and researched new tech. but I am also able to discard harmful old… I WANT an honest and open dialogue with consumers and I WANT to provide the best food I can within constraints that will enable my farm to continue and that INCLUDES environmental concerns…!….Let’s ALL CAN the cliche rhetoric !! Farms and consumers are going to both be around here for a LONG TIME to come……

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