Opinion

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.

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