Preserving Bee Health at the Farm Level — Let’s Collaborate, Learn and Communicate

Bee hives are winterized in a Manitoba bee yard. Lyndsey Smith, 2013

When the Grain Farmers of Ontario rushed to create a new coalition of farm groups, known as Farm Action Now, there was a sense that legislation was in the works in which the government would steer away from evidence-based regulatory decisions, and instead pander to an environmental lobby that had a lot of scare factor on their side.

Two weeks after that inaugural meeting of Farm Action Now, Ontario announced a move aimed at “Reducing Pesticide Use & Protecting Pollinator Health.” The headline itself is pretty benign, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. The subtitle to the announcement was that the government would work to reduce by 80 percent corn and soybean acres treated with neonicotinoids by 2017. OK, work to reduce isn’t really the right term. Really, the message is: “We, the government, will make sure you, the irresponsible farmer, cuts neonic use whether you like it or not.”

In a relationship that usually has farmers and farm groups quietly opposed and publically supportive of a government, the Grain Farmers of Ontario is leading a charge that turns that concept around. They are mad, and making sure everyone knows it. Farmers are mad, too. Not because these groups aren’t concerned about bee health, but because they feel they are being pushed around by an Environment Minister who has taken some of his experience in urban planning to dictate everything that a farmer is doing wrong.

I can’t blame my fellow farmers for being angry. This move makes me question (again) whether the current Ontario government actually has Ontario’s thoughts in mind or if they’re really just thinking about the vote-rich city of Toronto in which media and environmental groups simply think a ban is best to protect insects.

Here is the harsh reality though — neonicotinoids are a type of insecticide. An insecticide (whether a synthetic one like this, or organic one like rotenone) is produced, marketed and sold as an insect-killing product. The goal of an insecticidal seed treatment is to make sure insects don’t eat the seed before it has time to germinate and grow, or to protect a young seedling from early pest damage. The goal is to suppress or kill insects, end of story.

That said, bees are obviously important to farmer’s livelihoods, and not the target of a neonic. As farmers, we don’t want to hurt bees — we want to know how we can work together.

So let’s see what we know.

Ontario has the highest number of bee losses in Canada. Connecting the dots begins with the little over 5 million acres of corn and soybean seed planted in a year. Many of those seeds are what we refer to as ‘treated seed’, and are coated with a neonic. In Western Canada, they also use neonic treated seed, mainly on canola. And you think 5 million acres is a lot of treated seed? Try 20 million acres in Western Canada. The same Western Canada which is seeing thriving bee populations. It’s not even on most government’s radar in the west, with Saskatchewan’s Assistant Deputy Minister of Regulatory and Innovation in the Ag Ministry saying they have no plans to launch similar action to Ontario. Janice Tranberg simply says they aren’t having an issue. How can one area with more acres of neonicontinoid treated seed have less of a problem?

There are lots of ideas. Terry Daynard, a man with a distinguished career in agriculture, writes about the concept that bees don’t like corn and soybeans. So if bee producers place hives in areas surround by these – they are basically starving them. Hugh Simpson, a beekeeper in Ontario spoke with the National Post about his worry about all this ban talk.

And then the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (the body that manages the review and approval of all pesticides in Canada) released their latest findings on bee health and noted what many could already see coming — that the neonicotinoid dust from planting appears to be the best connection when it comes to what impact the insecticide has on bees. Not a strange finding, since we already determined that neonics are an insecticide, and bees are insects.

So then it leaves what to do.

We can listen to a minister from Toronto-Centre on how to farm as he states: “Our policies on systemic neurotoxic pesticides must be based on evidence, science & the prudent application of the precautionary principle.”

(But if we are policing neurotoxins on science – the science is clear that drinking alcohol is a real issue – particularly in over-users and unborn children. Can we expect that ban next, Minister Glen Murray?)

We could use prudent application of the precautionary principle and ban cell phones, after all the science out of Sweden suggests that users have triple the risk of certain kinds of brain cancer. Or as a Twitter user questioned, will the precautionary principle be applied to wind tower construction in rural areas next?

None of these will happen. Green power, cell phones and booze are too popular in urban Ontario.

Instead can we expect this government to focus on that science and evidence the Environment Minister thinks is important? The science shows that neonic dust during planting can be dangerous to bees, so let’s find ways to control that dust. (Which, farmers already began to address this last planting season with a move to using Fluency agent).

Banning the product will either result in lower yields (and either more importing of foreign product, likely from seed treated with a neonicotinoid, and potential higher food costs), or the use of different insecticides that would have the same impact on bees if sprayed around a hive. Many of these foliar sprays also carry risks to fish, mammals and other wildlife, including the humans applying the chemical — risks that are minimized with a targeted, on-seed treatment.

Farmers want to understand the science and do better. Last spring, with just a few short months of notice, farmers changed a seed lubricant to a new product that reduces that dust. Bee mortalities were down 70% at planting time.

Meanwhile, farmers and equipment makers quickly started working together to make dust deflectors and filters that would further reduce that dust blowing from various planters. Those farmers invested in that equipment themselves at their own expense.

Wouldn’t a better system than trading one insecticide for another be to help farmers invest in that deflecting and dust reducing technology? How about providing government extension and research staff with funding to help identify when, where and how neonics can be better utilized? Farmers would happily adapt – if you proved that science.

And what about beekeepers? If studies show bees prefer different crops and plants than corn and soy, wouldn’t it be in their better interest to move them? Would hives do better placed on other land or in other areas, independent of neonicotinoid use? It’s high time this discussion began to focus on the responsibility of beekeepers, and their own management of hives, too.

Looking at what’s next, I won’t hold my breathe that Ontario’s government will show any sensible judgment on the matter. They clearly prefer making decisions on fear rather than fact. And the pressure won’t stop. The talk has already started on why 80% reduction and not 100%. Is this pressure that the government is ready to bow to?

Farmers are ready to work together, but steamrolling is only going to continue to split urban and rural Ontario further apart.

I fear it’s an unfortunate government legacy in the making.

More posts from Andrew Campbell: 

 

Andrew Campbell

Andrew is a dairy farmer in southern Ontario who also specializes in helping farmers learn about social media and advocacy. Once broadcasting farm news reports on the radio, he still likes to keep a close eye on news and issues relating to agriculture. Andrew is the owner of Fresh Air Media (http://www.thefreshair.ca), has a mild addiction to Twitter and believes the Brier & Scotties are the most important sporting events in the country. @FreshAirFarmer

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2 Comments

Philip Shaw

I enjoyed reading through Andrew’s piece. I really chafe at this statement,

Really, the message is: “We, the government, will make sure you, the irresponsible farmer, cuts neonic use whether you like it or not.”

I respectfully disagree with that. I just don’t see it that way, I don’t think our government would ever think this way or even in a offhand way let this notion stand. There are lots of people in rural Ontario who vote NDP, Liberal and Green just like there are lots of people in the greater Toronto area who vote PC. With our first past the post system, seat numbers are what they are. As is, I look at the neonic partial ban as just another challenge for Ontario agriculture and by far not the most important.

Implying farmers are irresponsible, I don’t think so It’s simply a government policy which is causing much angst. I had the Environment Minister follow me the other day on Twitter. He asked the other day when he was being haraunged if we really knew him. I responded by saying he’s the former mayor of Winnipeg and my former college roomate lives in Toronto Centre and knows him. That college roomate of mine comes to my farm each summer and has a wonderful time. Simply put the people of Toronto Centre are just as Canadian as me. We make laws in this country and we follow them, it doesn’t matter where you are from.

To me this issue is an agricultural economic issue. Good science, well, when good science meets bad agricultural economics, good science loses, and this time it happened big time. This neonic issue is what it is, and it will surely pass. New Technology will surely be part of the solution. I’d just like to see the temperature lowered a bit.

Sincerely

Philip Shaw

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Kevin

Philip – While I have much criticism for this current Provincial Government on other issues that affect us in rural Ontario: like the ramming of wind turbines down our throats even some of us didn’t want them (Green Energy Act 2009) as well as the severe cuts to the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF) in rural municipalities that will raise property taxes drastically to farmers, 100% of the blame for this does not rest with the Government.

Also to blame are the companies Bayer & Syngenta as well as seed companies for not having corn seed available without neonicotinoid treatment sooner than last season (after all the press from bee deaths). There were even times I couldn’t buy soybean seed without the treatment. I was being forced to spend the $12. to $24. per acre when I did not need to because of my soil type. When large companies start thinking of others besides their profits, maybe Governments would not have to take such drastic actions because of potential harm to someone else in society. I doubt these companies will learn anything from this mistake as corporate greed has always been a problem in Agriculture.

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