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All that confusion on seed treatments

Some implications of Ontario’s new neonic regulations are stunning

As the calendar has turned to a new year, the news from seed and chemical companies is that there is considerable confusion about seed-applied treatments. Growers, they’re finding, have been left with a mixed bag of information about the options available to them, much of which is flat out wrong.

Some growers believed they had no seed-applied options at all, while others were confused about the levels of neonicotinoid seed treatments they could use.

Some thought they could use 50 per cent, while others thought neonics had been banned altogether.

It turns out the facts are a little more straightforward. In 2016, farmers will have four options:

  • Option 1 — if planting untreated seed or fungicide-only treated seed, nothing has changed and there are no regulations requiring self-declarations or assessments.
  • Option 2 — growers can apply a new seed treatment, a non-Class 12 (non-neonicotinoidal) product called Fortenza Maxim Quattro from Syngenta. There’s no paperwork required and it can be applied to 100 per cent of corn acres (it is not registered for use in soybeans).
  • Option 3 — a grower can plant up to half their acreage for corn and half their acreage for soybeans with neonic-treated seed, but they must file a self-declaration by completing a two-page form in advance of planting.
  • Option 4 — a grower can plant 100 per cent neonic-treated seed but they must obtain a documented soil-pest assessment for each property as defined by its municipal roll number.

In 2017, the rules will change again. Option 3 will be gone entirely, and in order to use 100 per cent neonic-treated seed, growers will need to complete an integrated pest management (IPM) course and have IPM training certification to show the seed company as proof. In addition, the grower will need to sign a form saying they have considered IPM principles. That’s over and above the required soil-pest assessment.

The requirement for an independent pest assessment does not take effect until 2018, depending on the county where the grower lives.

It’s important to note that farmers can do their own soil pest assessments in this first year (2016). However, the paperwork must be in order and may be subject to audit.

In future years, farmers will be required to conduct their own pest assessments under the supervision of a qualified pest assessor. Every second or third year, the assessment must be done by a qualified pest assessor. It’s also important to note that a grower can use neonic seed treatments after qualifying with a plant-loss assessment. These assessments must all be done by a CCA.

The primary online source for all of this information is ontario.ca/neonics.

Storm clouds with a silver lining?

Farmers are losing the option to freely treat both corn and soybeans with neonic-based treatments, and the cost could be significant. Yield losses in corn have been documented at anywhere from two or three bushels per acre to 20 on light-textured soils and in continuous corn operations.

On top of that, they will also be losing some of the benefits of no-till planting and of early season planting, since neonic-based seed treatments have helped open up those opportunities in the past 10 years.

On the other hand, the changes do mean that agriculture is having to look at other methods to control insect infestations — and there are some possibilities.

Indeed, this is where best management practices (BMPs) and IPM guidelines could be a potentially useful refresher course of sorts.

But the industry is warning there’s no magic wand.

Aphids mount their attack on this soybean plant.

Aphids mount their attack on this soybean plant.
photo: Tracey Baute, OMAFRA

“I don’t think that we’re naive; we recognize that sustainability is going to work its way into our industry in a significant way — and that’s fine,” says Dave Baute, president of Maizex Seeds near Tilbury, Ont. “Most growers will agree that a very slow and science-based approach to a phase-in of changes and policies is survivable. But if science isn’t in the mix, we’re in trouble.”

Baute is also concerned that fungicide treatments and Fortenza Maxim Quattro sometimes get pointed to as a viable substitute for neonic seed treatments. While Fortenza provides excellent activity on cutworm, European chafer and wireworm, for instance, it is registered for use on corn only, not on soybeans.

Confusion remains

For Stephen Denys, it’s essential to clear up the confusion that’s been created by what he calls a combination of poor government communications and a lack of foresight, on the one hand, as well as unfounded rumours about neonics.

“Coming into the fall, there was a percentage of farmers who were keeping track of this whole thing, but I would say the majority were not,” says Denys, vice-president of sales and marketing with Pride Seeds in Pain Court, Ont. “Some farmers were waiting to see if this was going to be a reality and some were relying on their suppliers, seed companies and retailers, and asking, ‘What am I going to do?’ Despite some efforts by the government, the majority of farmers just didn’t understand the impact that this is going to have on their operation.”

From Baute’s viewpoint, those numbers shake out with a third of farmers who know little or nothing of the situation, a third who are aware but haven’t attended one of the information sessions, and the final third, often the larger-scale producers, who are relying on the seed sector for help and direction.

“There’s a big range, and everyone has different ideas as to what they want to do or need to do,” says Baute. “It has really fallen into the laps of the seed companies to do the job of the government.”

In hindsight

The province did hold a number of information sessions, but not to Denys’s liking. He believes more of an effort could have been made to communicate to growers at the grassroots level, including on a county level instead of just three or four meetings across the province.

“We do know — some would say by design, some would say by coincidence — that when the consultations for these regulations were happening and when input was needed, farmers were planting,” says Denys. “And the experts are saying you can do the pest assessment in the fall but the best time to do it is in the spring, when insects can do damage to the seed or seedling, and at that point it wasn’t a law. So farmers have been put behind the eight ball because of the timing.”

The long-term impacts beyond 2016 or 2017 are also not well understood, according to Denys. In spite of what he refers to as a “common goal” with the minister of the environment and climate change (i.e. leaving the land in better shape than when it was found), he says the respective approaches are completely different. Instead of bringing regulations which are manageable from the producer’s standpoint — as has been done before — he charges that the government instituted a ban without calling it a ban.

“There was no consideration of the impact this has had outside of the mechanics of controlling insects,” Denys alleges. “In other words, we asked the government repeatedly, ‘Have you thought about the impact this will have on crop insurance, long-term? Have you thought about the impact this will have on what growers will have to use as alternatives?’ And repeatedly, we were looking into blank stares from people across the table.”

Baute agrees, and says the science shows that the key issue is unintended dust-off at planting. It’s a concern, he says. It’s even a “red flag,” but he says it’s also being addressed and it’s fixable.

“It’s unfortunate that politics and public opinion rule the day,” says Baute. “Our focus should be on best management practices, and that’s all we need when planting any treated seed, to limit unintended exposure to the environment. We’re light-years down the road from where we were in 2012 when this whole mess started.”

It’s also worth mentioning that many issues have been addressed. Seed coatings and polymers have reduced seed treatment losses, and there’s also the fluency agent with its guidelines pertaining to negative pressure (vacuum) planters, and deflector kits that are now available — both as factory-installed units and in after-market kits. Best of all, the response was quick and it was initiated and carried out within the agri-business industry.

“What’s really significant — and nobody talks about this — is that for the first time, growers recognized that there was something coming off their planter that impacts things downwind,” says Baute. “Growers do the right thing — there’s not a grower in the province who would intentionally impact a bee colony if they knew it was there, and if whatever they were applying was blowing towards them.”

Baute has talked about this at meetings, yet there is no comprehensive means of identifying and monitoring the location of beehives in Ontario. That opens the possibility that growers will refuse to allow beekeepers to locate hives on their land. But that’s not a real solution either.

If we could go back in time, Baute says, and if there was awareness of where the beehives were, and who the beekeepers are, growers would ensure there is a dialogue and some form of advanced notice as to when planting is taking place.

That way, beekeepers could cover their hives for two days, and likely see little if any impact. Or they could use an idea of Baute’s, to fund some sort of marker — say a candy-cane post supplied by beekeepers — and they put that at the field’s edge nearest where they have hives. That would be the universal sign that there are beehives in the area.

One final note

Baute is also hearing a sad and disturbing statement from growers, usually through his staff: for older growers, this may be the tipping point that convinces them to leave the industry. And the implications of this aren’t well understood by those outside of the agri-food sector, including politicians.

“There’s not a day goes by,” Baute says, “that somebody on our team doesn’t hear a 65-year-old, 200-acre farmer say, ‘You know what? I’m done; I had been planning on going for several more years, but if it’s this difficult and if the general public don’t appreciate what we’re doing, I’m done.’”

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of the Corn Guide

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