Costco asks suppliers to drop neonicotinoids in effort to save bees

Costco has updated its pollinator policy to encourage suppliers of fruits, vegetables, live goods and plants to phase out the use of neonicotinoids, a synthetic pesticide.

One grain farmer thinks the policy is made for 'public appeal' and not based on scientific evidence

A Cottam beekeeper says his bee colonies have decreased significantly because of the widespread use of neonicotinoids on crops. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Costco has updated its international policy for their suppliers, encouraging them to phase out the use of neonicotinoids (commonly called neonics), a synthetic insecticide that some scientists link to bee death.

The policy is an updated version of the one released in June 2016, with added mentions of integrated pest management and expanding the scope to include live goods, fruits and vegetables. The 2016 policy only extended to live plants.

"I like the idea that Costco is approaching growers to move away from this toxic chemical and look for alternatives," said Tom Congdon, a beekeeper in Cottam, Ont. who runs Sun Parlour Honey.

His bee colonies have decreased by about 40 per cent from where they used to be and the bees are having trouble surviving the winter, he said, with a wintering mortality rate at about 30 per cent in the recent years. It used to be around 5 per cent.

According to Ontario's Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, the rate that's considered acceptable and sustainable by beekeepers is around 15 per cent.

As of June 2017, the ministry says overwinter die offs have been averaging 34 per cent over the previous 12 years.

"[Neonics have] been devastating to our operations since they started to be used," Congdon said.

In a report by the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), it says approximately 70 per cent of the dead bees found in 2012 and 2013 tested positive for neonicotinoid residue.

Costco updated its pollinator health policy in May, expanding its scope to cover fruits and vegetables in addition to live plants. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Questions about regulation

But will Costco's move do anything concrete for the bees? A Kingsville farmer says the policy isn't realistic.

Henry Denotter grows grains and oil seeds without using neonics. He said his farm has phased out the use after doing bait tests that show they are able to rely on other chemicals.

He appreciates the company taking a stand, but says without looking at the science, it seems to be another rash decision "made just for public appeal."

Part of his reasoning is even when bees test positive for an insecticide at their death, it doesn't mean that's what caused their death.

"People don't realize that bees are a cultivated crop," said Denotter. "They only last so long and their lifespan's gone."

CBC News reached out to Costco on Monday for clarification on the policy but hasn't heard back from the company.

Henry Denotter, who grows grains and oil seeds in Kingsville, Ont., says he's stopped using neonics but thinks a total ban from Costco isn't realistic. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

'I have complete faith'

Echoing Denotter's comment on the unclear cause of death for some of the bees, the chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association crop protection section says it's habitat loss that is causing their decline — not neonics.

Charles Stevens, whose apples are sold to Costco, pointed to the drop in apple tree acreage as an example, saying Ontario has lost half the apple trees it used to have 45 years ago, when he first started farming apples.

Instead of coming out with a policy such as this, Stevens thinks Costco should be going about the issue differently by "creating habitat" for bees and encourage Canadian farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables.

He also trusts the government to do its job in regulating what's used for crop protection, saying Canada has the strictest regulations.

"I have complete faith in [the PMRA] doing their job," said Stevens.

He doesn't think it's the wholesaler's job to tell them what not to use on their crops.

"They're not a grower, they're a marketer."

Congdon says bees are the 'canary of the environment' and their decline shows there's a serious problem. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

'Cheap insurance policy'

While Stevens has trust in PMRA, Congdon thinks the agency has been too relaxed and "frankly negligent."

The PMRA is a federal agency, under Health Canada, responsible for pesticide regulation in Canada.

As mentioned in Costco's policy, Congdon wants there to be more integrated pest management (IPM) — where farmers first assess the risk to crops before determining how to protect them.

"Up until now, these chemicals have been used as a cheap insurance policy for crops," he said. "And it's not cheap at all, it's taking a heavy toll on the environment."

However, one effect from not using these pesticides may be that crops don't look picture perfect, a point raised by Denotter, who says that while the food may be fine to consume, consumers don't want to buy something that looks different from what they're used to.

"Nobody wants to buy a cob of sweet corn with corn-born maggots eating out of the end of it ... there is no market for that," said Denotter.

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About the Author

Flora Pan


Flora Pan is a multimedia journalist based in southern Ontario. She currently works out of Windsor. You can reach her at or on Twitter @FloraTPan.

with files from Meg Roberts