Canada's wait and see policy on neonicotinoids, the controversial insecticide often blamed for the widespread death of bees, is "where France was five years ago," says a researcher with the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
Jean-Marc Bonmatin says Canadian jurisdictions are five years behind France and most of Europe when it comes to banning neonics, adding, "there is a clear connection between what happened with DDT and what is happening now with neonics."
Bonmatin, who is also vice-chair of a group of European scientists formed in 2009 amid growing concern over rapid declines in insects in Europe, reviewed more than 1,000 studies on neonics and concludes that the evidence is clear.
"Neonics are very, very toxic to all invertebrates including butterflies, earthworms and aquatic invertebrates, which are at the very heart of the food chain."
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Bonmatin was in Toronto recently as a guest of the David Suzuki Foundation to help bolster Ontario's plan to dramatically restrict neonic use for the next growing season.
Ontario is, to date, the only Canadian jurisdiction to consider restricting neonic use, beginning next spring with corn and soybeans.
But Ontario grain farmers say statements like Bonmatin's are alarmist and are derived from "cherry picking anti-pesticide studies to prove their point."
Kevin Armstrong, a farmer near Woodstock, Ont., and a director of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, says he has been planting neonic-treated seed on his farm for 10 years and he still sees plenty of earthworms, birds, fish in the stream, and bees.
The campaign against neonics, he says, is "nothing but an anti-pesticide agenda."
Alternative to spraying
Neonic-treated seeds were designed to be an alternative to widespread spraying of fields and to contain pesticide use to the individual plant. But its critics have said the powerful toxin is still finding its way into the larger eco-system.
In 2013, Europe imposed a two-year moratorium on three popular neonics in use for some applications.
The moratorium ends this year, but France decided last week to demand an extension of the moratorium and to widen it to include all neonics, says Bonmatin.
During the moratorium, bee losses were lessened without any negative impact on crop yields, he says. So, he argues, the widespread use of neonics is not justifiable and not worth the risk.
In France, before the moratorium, bee losses were in the range of 30 per cent each year.
But over the past two years, "we are observing a decrease of mortality.... by at least 10 per cent," Bonmatin says.
He also says there is conclusive evidence of "a cascade effect to other species, such as birds, smaller mammals and even humans," saying neonic use is a public health issue.
Humans at risk
"All vegetables and all fruit contain at least one neonicotinoid and 75 per cent of fruit and 45 per cent of vegetables contains two neonics, so this is a real issue of exposure for our food for human health," he says.
Health Canada is currently re-evaluating the very popular insecticides and their impacts on honey bees, other animal life and the environment.
Bonmatin expects "there will probably be an extension of the ban for all neonics for the 27 countries constituting Europe and this could be a very good example to follow for North America, especially Canada."
Canadian farmers are "prisoners of the pesticide lobby," he says, adding: "If you want something to change really you have to ban these pesticides because banning these pesticides will force farmers to do things differently and will force companies to develop products that are safe."
But Kevin Armstrong says that without neonic technology European farmers are regressing to previous farming methods, which, he says, are more detrimental to the environment.
In particular, Armstrong says, "Europe has been moving away from no-till practices back to ploughing to control for pests, which causes more soil erosion and leaching into soil and water."
What's more, he says, it is ridiculous to imply farmers are at the mercy of the pesticide companies.
"All of these products exist in a marketplace and we decide if we want to use them or not," he says. "We are no more under the thumb of pesticide companies than any other consumer choosing to buy a Toyota over a Ford. Pesticides are just a product."