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bee over yellow flower

Phasing out Canada’s number one insecticide

A blow for health and the environment, or a great corporate strategy?

Canadian “green” social media is a-buzz about saving the bees, since Health Canada proposed phasing out the largest selling “bee-killing” insecticide, the “neonic” imidacloprid.

Wait. Is banning this one pesticide a victory for science and the environment, or an astute strategy for the corporate coffers? Several similarly toxic, newer, on-patent expensive alternatives will remain in use. With five other look-alikes available, farmers and consumers of conventionally grown grains, potatoes, fruits and vegetables may pay more, but how is this salvation for pollinators or ecosystems?

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food was asked by industry to investigate — more below …

Will a Parliamentary hearing inspire MPs for an organic transition?

The Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food recently branched out from the usual higher-level policy business of Members of Parliament, with hearings focused on the Health Canada science-based administrative decision, to phase out a single chemical.

Imidacloprid was the first neonic to be broadly marketed, and the first to be connected with mass bee die-offs in France. International independent scientists, the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, famously linked neonics to precipitous pollinator declines and threats to food security. Several neonics are partially banned in Europe, and fully banned in France. A joint USA/Canada pollinator study is pending, but the Parliamentary Committee heard that since 2011 Canada has not been self-sufficient in bees. Every year, packets containing queens must be imported.

Neonics also harm worms, fish, birds, mammals and other species, with effects that ripple up the food chain. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) found that high levels of imidacloprid in waterways undermine the base of the aquatic food chain, and imidacloprid is proposed to be phased-out over three to five years.

Neonics permeate the entire plant, including what we eat, and the chemicals linger. While one application can be effective against pests for a year or more, a large review found that neonics take many years to break down.

Some toxic breakdown products are common to several neonics, so if one should be banned, then as in Europe, others should too. Despite knowledge gaps, today’s knowledge merits banning imidacloprid, and accelerating actions on all six of Canada’s neonic-type insecticides. We do not want to substitute chemicals that are even worse.

The Committee hearing initially focused on staff and industry, but as Canadian Members of Parliament listened to proponents extoll the economic importance of long-lasting toxic chemicals that kill a broad range of creatures, two new reports from the United Nations and the European Parliament detailed that intensive pesticide use has not increased yields and farmers’ profits over the long term. The UN and EU conclusions: organic farming is the answer to feeding the world.

Following a media release, the Committee relented and the David Suzuki Foundation and Équiterre shared a presentation on Day 2. Équiterre’s Annie Bérubé described Quebec’s outstanding support for organic agriculture as a model to be emulated nationally. Organic farmers need a broad ban to protect pollinators and other beneficial creatures, including bio-controls for crop pests. Indeed, all farmers share this need. In recent field trials, imidacloprid decreased soy bean yield because it killed a slug-eating beetle.

Ultimately, Canada needs a new, least-toxic approach to pest control; an end to the parade of permitted toxicants being eventually shunted off the shelves only after environmental levels and damage escalate to harmful levels.

Pesticides risk our health, and the ecosystems that cradle us all. Quebec is changing course, but Prevent Cancer Now hears of antagonism and lack of support faced by Canadian organic farmers elsewhere. In stepping out of their usual role, the Members of Parliament on the Agriculture Committee cracked open the door to charting new strategies for environmental and human health, and for sustainable agriculture in a changing climate.