Bee-killing pesticides: The fight ramps up

Ontario is proposing to dramatically restrict the use of some pesticides that many blame for the collapse of bee colonies. But farmers say the restrictions threaten their livelihoods and their supporters see a hidden agenda in Ontario's move.

Debate over chemicals' role in bee deaths becoming an urban-rural divide

Beehive battleground: High-stakes debate over controversial pesticides

9 years ago
Duration 4:11
Farmers, beekeepers, pesticide companies & government square off over Neonicotinoids

The collapse of bee colonies nationwide is well-established and beyond dispute. Beyond that, things get a bit murky. 

Many researchers, but not all, blame the mass die-off of bees on the use of neonicotinoid products — pesticides that are widely used by farmers and gardeners on 50 kinds of fruits and vegetables in Canada. They're even used on pet flea collars.

There's general agreement that these insecticides are toxic to bees and some other species. But the industry argues that when the insecticides are applied to seeds, which are then buried, it's a stretch to say that the bees are dying because of their products.
Bees in some parts of Canada have been dying in record numbers. When the dead bees were collected and tested by Health Canada in 2012, 70 per cent were found to have traces of neonicotinoids on them. (Andy Duback/Associated Press)

Enter the Ontario government. It is proposing to dramatically restrict the use of these chemicals by the start of the 2016 corn and soybean planting season. It wants farmers to have to prove they actually have pests before they could use certain pesticide-treated seeds that are suspected as being bee-killers. Right now, farmers can use these products preventatively.  

And use them they do, and in large volumes. Virtually all the corn grown in Canada and two-thirds of Canada's soybean crops are neonic-treated. In Ontario, five million acres of farmland are planted with neonicotinoid-treated seeds.  

'The strongest action'

Ontario trumpets its proposal as "the strongest action in North America to protect bees, birds, butterflies and other pollinators."

The province's environment minister, Glen Murray, puts it bluntly. Neonics, he says, have become "a chronic problem affecting ecological integrity."  

But grain farmers, pesticide-makers and their supporters are increasingly framing Ontario's proposal as little more than a sop to urban, vote-rich Torontonians who don't understand modern agriculture.

Grain farmer Stephen Denys says he was "dumbfounded" by the Ontario move . "We're in a situation where one per cent of farmers feed the other 99 per cent and we've got a communication gap."  Denys, who is also VP of marketing for Pride Seeds Canada, says farmers believe neonic seed treatments are safe. The proposed Ontario restriction, he says, "pits urban against rural," saying the government move shows that it is effectively saying that it doesn't "trust farmers."

Somehow, the honeybee has attained sacred cow status- Art Schaafsma, pest management researcher, University of Guelph

University of Guelph pest management researcher Art Schaafsma goes even further. He says Ontario has taken"a political and environmental position."

"Somehow, the honeybee has attained sacred cow status," he says. In an email to CBC, he said he fears the proposal to restrict neonics is "not for the neonics and pollinator agenda but represents instead, the start of a major paradigm shift which is anti-modern agriculture."

He says Ontario's move is designed to play off Toronto's "delusion that the world can be fed with small-holdings organic agriculture."

Defending neonics

Ted Menzies heads CropLife Canada, the industry association that represents many of the large pesticide corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, and Bayer. Menzies, a farmer himself, says "neonics are the best thing that ever happened for farmers." 

Ontario Environment Minister Glen Murray says Menzies represents"the people making most of the money here — the large pesticide and seed companies." But Murray acknowledges that Menzies' position has some support outside the farming and pesticide industry.
Beekeepers and some scientists say neonicotinoid chemicals are contributing to bee colony collapses. The chemicals face restrictions in several European countries. (Ben Margot/The Associated Press)

"There are some scientists who would agree with Mr. Menzies' view, [but] there are more that do not," Murray says. "It's not that neonics are the only problem, but you're not going to solve the problem as long as neonics are omnipresent."

As Ontario floats its controversial restriction, the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) — which is part of Health Canada — has approved 29 new neonic products for growers to use to whatever extent they feel is necessary. Like the EPA in the U.S., the PMRA says the products are safe for wide-scale use.    

Health Canada, which is in the midst of conducting its own review of these products, sees no reason for Ontario to enact its precautionary move until the federal department's own re-evaluation is completed in 2017. Supporters of the use of neonic-treated seeds wonder why Ontario wants to restrict their use if Health Canada has stated they're safe. Why not at least wait until the results of their re-evaluation are in, they say?   

Ontario's Glen Murray says he prefers to be safe rather sorry. "The biggest problem is that it's been left to the provinces to clean up the mess after national governments released these things on conditional trials that, more than a decade later, they are still re-evaluating." 

In the meantime, it will be business as usual in most of Canada's gardens and farmlands — at least, during this spring's planting season.