Photo: Plan Bee: Ontario moves to restrict neonics

By Lisa Gue, Researcher and Analyst

Ontario's Pollinator Health proposal has created quite a buzz. The government is proposing regulations to prohibit the use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds, except under certain conditions. The intent is to reduce these uses by 80 per cent by 2017.

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Neonicotinoid insecticides (neonics) are highly toxic to bees and have wide-ranging effects on other organisms, including impaired memory, lower reproduction rates and increased susceptibility to disease. Ontario's move is good news for the birds and bees, and for the rest of us whose food supply depends on pollinators.

Highlights of the proposal

  • A regulatory approach ensures the new restrictions on the use and sale of treated seeds will be enforceable. The proposed regulations would allow the use of neonic-treated seeds only by licensed farmers who demonstrate a "need" for these pesticides, based on the presence of certain pests above a specified threshold and documented activities to reduce pest threats through alternative means in an Integrated Pest Management framework. These exemptions will need to be tightly constrained, including credible third-party verification and point-of-sale controls that put the onus on vendors to ensure conditions are met.
  • The proposed timeline for implementing the new restrictions is appropriate. The province is moving quickly to finalize regulations by July 2015. We are already tracking a year and a half behind Europe's moratorium, and the threat that neonics pose to ecosystem functioning requires urgent action. Ontario's new restrictions will take effect in time for the 2016 planting season, giving farmers time to adjust.
  • The target (reducing the use of neonic-treated corn and soybean seeds by 80 per cent) represents a meaningful reduction and a measure of accountability. The proposal includes a requirement for seed vendors to report sales of neonic-treated seeds, which will provide the basis for assessing whether this target is met. If it is not, the government should commit to a review that would consider further restricting exemptions and improving compliance and enforcement. The next step would be to start planning for a complete phase-out.
  • The scope of the proposal is limited but targets uses that are widespread and known to pose an immediate threat to bees. A federal government study prompted by beekeepers' reports of unusually high rates of bee mortalities confirmed a strong link between contaminated dust from planting neonic-treated corn and soybean seeds and bee deaths in Ontario. Corn and soybeans also represent the largest field crops planted in Ontario, covering close to five-million acres, and the greatest potential for reduction in the use of neonic-treated seed. (Virtually all corn and 60 per cent of soybean seeds sold in the province are treated with neonics.) The proposed regulation will target three neonics registered in Canada as corn and soybean seed treatments that are highly toxic to bees. While this is a reasonable starting point, a comprehensive approach extending restrictions to all neonics and all crops would better protect the environment. The Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides — the most comprehensive review of the science on neonics to date — revealed broader concerns about the impact of these chemicals, beyond their immediate and lethal effects on bees. Long-term exposure to even low levels of neonics can adversely affect the health of pollinators and other organisms, with consequences for ecosystem functioning. (CBC's Quirks and Quarks took a look at this issue in October 2014.)
  • The proposal includes a commitment to develop a new program of training for farmers on alternative methods to control insect pests specific to corn and soybeans. This will be important to support farmers in making the transition away from neonic-treated seeds.

Read our full comments here (pdf)

Ontario's regulatory proposal to curb neonics is the first of its kind in North America, although Europe introduced a similar ban in 2013. Canada's federal pesticide regulator, Health Canada's Pest Control Management Agency (PMRA), is conducting a protracted re-evaluation of its risk assessment for neonics and has yet to take any meaningful action to restrict these pesticides. With the federal regulator stalling and bees dying, Ontario has rightly moved to Plan Bee. Precautionary action to prevent neonics from contaminating the environment is necessary and timely.

The Pollinator Health proposal was posted on the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights Registry for public comment until January 25, 2014. You can still download the discussion paper here.

December 15, 2014

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