November 13 was the last day to comment to the Feds on their proposed ban of several neonicitinoid insecticides currently having grave effects on bees, other pollinators, aquatic insects and other organisms.
Like many other Canadians, I made sure I got on the website comment page to let them know that although it was great Canada was planning to implement a ban, in typical foot-dragging government fashion they were far too beholden to shrill industry voices in proposing a three- to five-year phase out while in France, all agricultural uses of the three main neonics were already banned and all outdoor uses would be banned throughout the European Union by the end of the year.
Canadians should be extremely concerned about this proposed timeline. It's critical we put pressure on our government to move more quickly because these substances accumulate in the environment through agricultural runoff and wind transport, and we use megatons of them. Thus, they will continue to have environmental effects for many years after their use is banned, and the current level of contamination already represents a major worldwide threat to biodiversity and ecosystems. Of course, as with so many things that are bad for life on Earth, these chemicals—imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam—are good for business, setting up a classic clash between a government department seeking to protect the environment and health of the public, and a business seeking only to protect itself.
Here's the Health Canada statement: "Following special reviews for two neonicotinoid pesticides, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency has found that these substances are being measured at levels that are harmful to aquatic insects. These aquatic insects, which are a source of food for fish, birds and other animals, are an important part of the ecosystem. Based on these findings, Health Canada is proposing to phase out all outdoor agricultural and turf uses for clothianidin, and all outdoor agricultural and ornamental uses for thiamethoxam in the next three to five years."
And here's the industry problem: Canada has over 20 million acres in canola, and neonicotinoid insecticides are coated on virtually every seed before it goes into the ground. And canola isn't alone—almost all corn, a lot of soybeans, and several other crops are also coated with a neonicotinoid prior to planting; the plants then grow with the chemical as part of their systemic makeup. The phase-out would apply to seed treatments on all.
Currently, canola growers rely on both clothianidin, a Bayer/Monsanto product, and thiamethoxam, a Syngenta insecticide, to control flea beetles early in the growing season. Many agronomists and canola experts (read: agri-lobbyists) are trying to say that without seed treatments, farmers will have to spray more insecticides over their crops—insecticides with older chemistries that they argue are more hazardous to a wider range of beneficial insects and the environment than neonicotinoid seed treatments. (Naturally, they weren't arguing that these things were harmful when they were using them.)
Being a trained biologist, I have a fairly good on-paper understanding of the environmental impacts of these substances—but I've also seen it in the field. As a science writer and author of several books with biological themes, many of my recent investigations—the decline of bees, invasive species issues, wildlife crime, and the disappearance of insects (in particular, see "bugging out" Sept. 18, 2016)—have brought me into contact with the issue of "neonics." Having interviewed and accompanied investigators and researchers in the field, it is abundantly clear to me how big the impact of these persistent chemicals is on the environment.
To protect biodiversity now and into the future, Canada should match the European timeline and immediately ban clothianidin and thiamethoxam, as well as imidacloprid.
In my submission to the government I ended by making this point: "I understand you are trying to be fair to farmers and industry, but I think you're being far too generous in this, to the point of not actually having the desired effect on removing these substances from the current environment. Remember that we humans—farmers and industry alike—can adapt to deal with an immediate ban, while the organisms affected, as well as the environment, cannot and will not adapt to continued use of these chemicals."
It's time for the government to follow the scientific precept of the precautionary principal and ban harmful neonics effective within the next year. Time is of the essence.
Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in connecting the dots.