The neonic debate on the future of bees gets real

With tough new regulations on the books, even some beekeepers are calling for compromise

Two months have passed and it seems the adage, “time heals all wounds” just doesn’t hold up. Instead, we’re further into the debate on neonicotinoid seed treatments, but farmers seem no closer to a solution. They may even be a step backwards. There is still no compromise with the beekeeping sector, or with provincial politicians or the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC).

During events such as the London Farm Show in early March and the Grain Farmers of Ontario’s March Classic later in the month, discussions displayed the full spectrum of emotions, from a reluctant “wait-and-see” approach to a growing sense of frustration, culminating in calls for everything from legal action to “tractorcades.”

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Meanwhile, the Sierra Club has been acknowledged as the key supporter behind the anti-chemical stance of the Ontario Beekeepers Association’s board of directors. Late in March, Lee Townsend, the commercial beekeeper whose “Alberta Buzzing” posts have tracked much of the debate, reported on the March 24 visit to Edmonton of the Protect the Pollinators Tour, organized by the Sierra Club.

Townsend takes John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, to task for unsubstantiated claims that the Pest Management Regulatory Agency is in bed with neonic manufacturers, as well as for saying that honeybee numbers are falling, despite Statistics Canada reports from 2014 proving that they are at record numbers.

When Townsend pressed Bennett to divulge how much of the Sierra Club’s funds go to research pollinator health, Bennett’s reply was, “We do not fund any research, only promote awareness.”

It’s a tactic that seems effective. Ontario has announced sweeping amendments to the Pesticide Act, including a declaration that all neonicotinoid seed treatments be classified as a pesticide under a Group 12 designation. The new measures are to take effect July 1, 2015, and will create new barriers in 2016 that will tighten in 2017.

Ontario’s new regulations

In the first year covered by the new Ontario regulations, farmers will be allowed to self-declare the need to treat 50 per cent of their seed without any advance work to determine the presence or threshold levels of target insect pests. If the need or desire is there to treat more than 50 per cent of seed in the initial year (2016), the farmer can perform a self-assessment by going into the field, digging five holes per 100-acre increment and trying to find wireworm, European chafers and other target species.

For 2017, however, that 50 per cent threshold will be gone. Farmers will be required to have a third-party assessor confirm thresholds and the need for any level of neonic treatment.

Farm groups say that, in principle, establishing thresholds isn’t bad. After all, they’re consistent with integrated pest management (IPM). Yet the groups say the new pesticide regulations fail in two ways:

  • To perform a self-assessment next spring, a farmer must first complete a certification course this fall (i.e. during harvest). The course has yet to designed.
  • Second, there aren’t enough third-party assessors. As of mid-April 2015, it’s estimated there are only two such assessors, both certified crop advisers (CCAs). Farm groups are asking where Ontario will find these highly trained, highly qualified individuals for the planting season in 2017.

Of course, there is also concern about the new layers of costs to the farmer.

To Wayne Black, seed sales and production specialist with Devolder Farms near Chatham, Ont., the province is trying to employ more of a cookie-cutter approach to the use of seed treatments, believing that what works in Lanark County in eastern Ontario will fit conditions on the sand plains in Norfolk County in the south.

“You tell me when there’s going to be a pest outbreak, and I’ll tell you when we need to use neonic seed treatments,” says Black, echoing similar sentiments of Dr. Cynthia Scott-Dupree of the University of Guelph. “I believe there are more pests in some parts of Ontario than other areas, which is why farmers are not all on the same side of the fence when it comes to insecticides and pesticides. Farmers need to understand that just because that’s the way it is in Perth County, the circumstances in Essex or Renfrew counties could be totally different.”

Simply put, says Black, there isn’t enough time to lay out the certification requirements, to train advisers, or to generate reliable research.

Caught in the middle

As discussed in the April 2015 issue of Country Guide, the stance taken by directors of the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) and the Sierra Club has created a significant divide, not just between beekeepers and agriculture, but between commercial beekeepers and part-time and hobbyist beekeepers as well. Many of the former have worked to distance themselves from the “ban-neonics” contingent.

Although some acknowledge there’s been considerable damage done in agricultural-beekeeping relations, they hold to the belief that there is still room for negotiation.

John Van Alten and Hugh Simpson are commercial beekeepers in Ontario. Both express their desire to see a compromise, yet also acknowledge that the current climate between the government, the beekeepers (and the OBA) and agriculture as an industry has become toxic. Van Alten raises bees on a farm based near Freelton, with a packing plant and retail outlet in nearby Carlisle, located just northwest of Hamilton. This is his 35th year in business as a beekeeper, and he’s a former president of the OBA who makes no secret of his feelings about the direction the association is taking.

bee on a canola flower

“If we’re seen as a liability, we’ll have trouble finding locations to put our bees.” – John Van Alten, commercial beekeeper
photo: File

“We need to negotiate, and to come to some sort of a compromise that works well for beekeeping and ‘big ag,’” says Van Alten. “We’re tied to the hip with big ag — we can’t get away from that. We depend on landowners, primarily farmers, to put our bees on their property so that we can run our businesses. If we’re seen as a liability, we’ll have trouble finding locations to put our bees, so we need to stay at the table and work out a solution.”

On one hand, Van Alten feels the OBA’s directors are leaning too hard on neonics. On the other hand, he credits some for shedding light on this issue.

Everyone on both sides simply wants to earn a living, Van Alten says, and he suggests that agriculture understands that the status quo is not an option either.

But that doesn’t mean agriculture is ready to have unpalatable new regulations forced on it, Van Alten says.

“We don’t want to have a winner and a loser in this — what we want to have is both sides feeling as if they’ve accomplished something and that they can still respect each other and run their businesses successfully,” Van Alten says. “There is a solution out there, we just need to find it. Both sides have people on the fringes who are willing to say that neonics are the devil incarnate or that they’re the best things in the world. The answer’s probably somewhere in the middle.”

Hugh Simpson shares many of the same notions. Simpson considers himself a moderate voice as a beekeeper, often bridging the gap between the beekeepers and the farming community. Operating Osprey Bluffs Honey on Blue Mountain outside of Collingwood for the past six years, Simpson has his beehives distributed around 20 different farms. He spends a significant amount of time during the off-season speaking about this issue, and he has a unique perspective on beekeeping: that it’s just the same as any other livestock farming with the key difference being that his “animals” have wings and six legs.

Like Van Alten, Simpson believes compromise is possible. He just doesn’t know if either side wants it, for an understandable reason.

“We’re now dealing with this environment where the stakeholders aren’t feeling voluntarily collaborative,” says Simpson. “Involuntary collaboration is really difficult, and that’s the problem. It’s not that the stakeholders aren’t talking, it’s not that they’re not sharing information, it’s that it’s in an environment of involuntary collaboration.”

As a result, suggestions come up, such as an 80 per cent reduction in neonic use. “That’s not a collaborative solution, it’s not a compromise,” Simpson says. “It’s one side getting more than another in the imposed measures.”

Simpson finds it difficult to keep one foot balanced in each camp. He has friends and neighbours who are growers, and he obviously shares a strong bond with beekeepers, who are also friends and colleagues. Now he worries that the neonic issue is driving a wedge between them.

So does Van Alten, who says, “If this legislation goes through as it’s written now, my feeling is that there are going to be a lot of growers who will be looking at the bee yard on their back 40 and wondering whether they really need that liability back there.”

Is there still time?

On what might seem like the other side, Paul Thiel, vice-president of innovation and public affairs for Bayer CropScience is also looking for positives.

“Farming is more sustainable than it’s ever been, and that’s the bottom line,” says Thiel, adding that simply banning a product is not a solution. “It’s not just substituting another product, it’s substituting a number of management decisions alongside that single action. And we in agri-business must help the public understand that we are constantly evolving regarding biodiversity and enhancing the natural capital we enjoy. Farmers do care about diversity and the environment on their farm. It’s their most important asset and their livelihood, and hopefully it’s going to be their children’s livelihoods.”

As much as he also wants to be positive, Stephen Denys finds the challenges daunting. Denys, vice-president of sales and marketing with Pride Seeds, near Chatham, has been watching the battle over neonicotinoids since 2012, when he was president of the Canadian Seed Trade Association, and he’s concerned that time is running out on the opportunity for compromise

Denys was involved in meetings with the province, the seed industry and the retailers association just prior to Easter, and it became clear to him that OMAFRA was no longer the “go-to” ministry on this issue — it was MOECC.

Who will be left to speak for me?

Seeds of this debate go back to the days of the cosmetic pesticide ban, Denys believes. He says many in agriculture felt they could ignore that debate, for two key reasons. One, it was happening to the lawn care sector, not on farms. Two, few believed the Liberal government would last as long as it has.

“The reality is the exact same people who were involved in the cosmetic pesticide ban within the government are the ones leading the charge now,” Denys says.

Denys believes those government insiders have only got shrewder. He believes they’re telling farm groups outside the grain and oilseed sector to stay out of this issue, that it isn’t their fight, and if they do become embroiled, the government will do to them what it’s doing to row-crop farmers.

In reality, says Denys, once the government is done with the cropping segment, they’ll go after horticulture and other sectors.

“The biggest concern I have as a farmer is that the government, without using sound science, is going to start to make it difficult for me to use any technology that has helped to give me an increase in yield over time,” says Denys.

Denys believes the government can claim that its goal is to keep the family farm active and promote the buy local approach, when it’s enacting policies that will do the opposite, promoting larger-scale farms to support higher volume, least-cost production because farmers can’t get their hands on sound technology.

Denys is also skeptical about the intentions of beekeepers. In situations where agriculture has tried to work co-operatively with beekeepers, he says, the OBA directors have dismissed the attempts.

What’s left?

Bayer’s Thiel believes there’s still an opportunity for the agri-food and agri-business sectors to come to the fore with positive messaging.

“People have to understand that farmers care — they care about what they produce, they care about the environment,” Thiel says. “I think people get behind organizations like the Sierra Club because they share a concern about things like the environment, but we have to make sure that people understand that farmers also care about the environment.”

Denys also thinks agriculture needs to do a better job of making their case to provincial and municipal politicians, both rural and urban. “I don’t know if we’ve done that as an industry as a whole effectively enough.”

Frustration may be building, Denys adds, but even that has some positive impacts. Frustration may turn into determination and a drive towards mobilizing an industry-wide effort to create awareness in the non-farming community of the important role of production agriculture.

“If we look at the neonic debate in the crop production sector, we have exacted no pain on the government — nothing politically, economically or otherwise,” says Denys.

Will farmers opt for more aggressive protests, like traffic slow-downs on the way into Toronto?

Denys sounds like he fears anything less may be ineffective: “We may get to that stage because the people making the decisions today are such strong ideologues, they do not want to look at common sense, they do not want to look at the benefits or the science of the technologies we’re using.”

About the author

CG Production Editor

Ralph Pearce

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