Think about your latest meal. Chances are that bees played a role in getting it to your plate. Unfortunately, recent developments have impeded the bees’ ability to thrive and survive the Canadian winter. In April 2015, citing the need for more scientific research, the EPA and Health Canada jointly halted approval of new crop uses for the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The Grain Farmers of Ontario, who represent over 28,000 Canadian famers, sought to delay the implementation of regulations they deemed “unworkable”. However, on October 23, 2015, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice rejected this attempt. The regulations in question restricted the area where farmers can plant neonicotinoid-coated seeds to 50% of their acres. Presently, close to 100% of Ontario corn and canola seeds, and about 60% of soybean seeds, are treated with neonicotinoids (ontariobee.com). By 2017, Canadian farmers must complete a pest assessment report to prove that they need the neonicotinoids before any usage will be allowed.
Neonicotinoids are a type of pesticide that has been in commercial use globally for many years. Initially, it was considered to be safer for human health compared to alternative insecticides. Before 2012, when a sizeable number of bee deaths were first reported, Canada did not possess any substantial data on adverse effects associated with these products (ontariobee.com).
In the European Union, neonicotinoids are already banned. Prompted by research demonstrating the harmful effects of the pesticides on bees, the European Commission introduced a temporary, selective ban of three of the most common neonicotinoids shown to weaken pollinators and make them more susceptible to viruses, harsh winters, and starvation (Globe and Mail). In the United States, the government warns that bee populations have recently been dying at an economically unsustainable rate. According to U.S. reports, almost 25% of the food eaten by Americans comes from crops that are dependent upon honey bees for pollination (Thomson Reuters). This includes popular items such as strawberries, apples, almonds, watermelons and beans. Recent court rulings in the U.S. are more in favor of the bees rather than the agro-industry.
The Grain Farmers of Ontario’s claim concerning their lost profit is purely speculative at this stage. However, the classic argument of “I can use my land as I see fit” is not only clumsy, but it also goes against public interest. Farmers say the chemicals are needed to protect rising crop yields, and that the Ontario regulations will cost them millions of dollars. However, in 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a study showing neonicotinoids offered “negligible benefits” to growers (Globe and Mail). The farmers’ group, alongside the chemical companies that make neonicotinoids and sell the coated seeds, say the pesticides are a key tool in protecting yields, and that bee deaths are overstated (Globe and Mail). Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and other agrichemical companies say the bees are being killed by other factors, such as mites. Bayer and Syngenta make the pesticides in question; while Monsanto and DuPont have used them as coatings for the seed they sell (Thomson Reuters).
Groups demanding greater protection of bees stress the insects’ economic value. Pollinators, including bees, birds and butterflies, play a crucial role in agriculture and our ecosystem. Seventy-five percent of crops traded on the global market depend on pollinators. In Europe alone, the value of pollination is estimated at 14.6 billion euros (Thomson Reuters). Specifically, neonicotinoids have been proven to “impair bees’ abilities to forage and navigate, and makes them more susceptible to viruses, parasites and long winters”(Globe and Mail). While there appears to be a link between neonicotinoid treated corn, soybean seed and bee deaths, this adverse reaction is not observed across all of Canada and it appears not to have impacted canola growing regions (Health Canada).
Aspects of Interest
Some beekeepers think that bees are gravitating towards urban areas in order to escape from rural areas where the neonicotinoids are used. David Schuitt, an experienced beekeeper states, “I’m coming to a point where I think the urban areas are a friendlier place for bees to live” (ontariobee.com).
It is not just bees that are affected by these controversial pesticides. Research has found that chemicals are being found in streams and working their way up the food chain (Globe and Mail). A study led by researchers at Radbout University in the Netherlands found that neonicotinoids may affect the entire ecosystem (cbc.ca). Findings show that in areas where there are high concentrations of neonicotinoids in the environment, birds are also disappearing. Several factors could be at play, including the death of the birds’ food source, the insects, as well as the negative effects of the neonicotinoids.
Based on the uncertainties that are still surrounding neonicotinoids, we applaud Ontario’s prudence in their regulations surrounding this issue. They are cognizant of the complex nature of the ecosystem and its impact on the Canadian food chain.