Ontario moves toward curbing pesticide blamed for bee deaths

Ontario is moving closer to curbing a class of pesticides blamed for massive bee kills that endanger the pollination of crops and the environment.

But farmers are infuriated by the move announced Tuesday by Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal to reduce the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-coated corn and soybean seeds by 2017.

“A reduction at this level puts our farmers at a competitive disadvantage,” said Barry Senft of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, insisting it “flies in the face” of efforts farmers have made to minimize impacts from the pesticide.

Leal promised 60 days of consultations on the plan, which was applauded by the Ontario Beekeepers Association, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario.

“We will work with farmers, beekeepers and all others impacted by this to implement a plan sensitive to their needs,” Leal pledged in a statement.

“We know, and farmers recognize, there are risks associated with the use of neonicotinoid pesticides,” he added, noting they are an “important tool” in certain circumstances.

The next step is to establish new rules on their use by July so that reduction measures can begin in time for the 2016 planting season, making the environment safer for bees engaged in pollination and making honey.

A manufacturer of neonicotinoids, CropLife Canada, issued a statement calling them “one of the safest insecticides ever developed.”

“We are disappointed that the government of Ontario intends to disadvantage Ontario farmers by informing an ill-informed reduction target.”

Beekeepers have criticized the government for not moving fast enough given what has happened in other jurisdictions, but applauded the announcement.

The Ontario Beekeepers Association credited the government for “moving decisively and measurably to significantly limit the use of these toxic chemicals,” president Tibor Szabo said in a statement.

“The OBA appreciates the government’s recognition that the prophylactic use of neonicotinoid-coated seed on Ontario’s corn and soy crops is unwarranted and unacceptable.”

The European Commission, for example, has restricted the sale and use of the pesticides since 2013, with Japan, France, Germany, Italy and eastern Ontario’s Prince Edward County taking various forms of action already.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath noted many bees have died in the last year waiting for the government to act, despite repeated warnings from the beekeeping industry.

“It’s certainly taken a long time,” she told reporters, accusing the Liberal government of deciding to “drag out the implementation.”

The pesticide disrupts the ability of bees, along with other pollinators such as birds and butterflies, to feed, navigate and reproduce and makes them more susceptible to illness.

Leal’s ministry acknowledged that 58 per cent of the province’s bees died over last winter — a record in what was also an unusually cold season.

Earlier this year, two major beekeeping firms spearheaded the launch of a $450-million class-action lawsuit against two pesticide manufacturers, alleging their products have caused widespread deaths in bee colonies.

Health Canada has also blamed chemicals in the pesticides for mass bee kills and an Ontario Agriculture Ministry field crop entomologist has said the pesticide seed treatments should be used “only when necessary” in the 10 to 20 per cent of soils susceptible to wireworm and grubs.

An international panel of 50 scientists working as the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides has called for neonics to be phased out, and is calling on authorities to restrict their use saying they also harm worms and birds.

Neonics, which are also applied through a spray, make up roughly 40 per cent of the insecticide market, with global sales nearing $3 billion in 2011.

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