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Ontario government proposes restricted use of neonic-treated seed

The Ontario government has released its proposed regulatory changes to the provincial Pesticides Act to restrict the sale and use of corn and soybean seed treated with neonicotinoids in the province — and to say Ontario’s grain farmers aren’t pleased would be an understatement.

According to provincial agriculture minister Jeff Leal, the intent is to reduce neonicotinoid use in Ontario by 80 per cent by 2017. The changes, if passed, would come into effect July 1 of this year for the 2016 planting season.

“Our organization has spent a significant amount of time reviewing and evaluating the draft regulations and brought forward numerous questions to the Ontario government regarding various aspects of the plan,” says Mark Brock, Chair of Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO). “The lack of clarity, inability to address very real on-farm challenges with respect to implementation of the regulations, and the timelines imposed on the industry as a whole create an unmanageable, widespread burden to agriculture.”

“The regulations, as drafted, create insurmountable barriers to access neonicotinoid seed treatment — essentially, the government has developed a ban on the product,” he adds.

The proposed changes will create a new class of pesticides in Ontario, Class 12, for corn and soybean seeds treated with three neonicotinoid insecticides: imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and clothianidin.

Anyone wishing to buy neonic-treated seed will have to complete Integrated Pest Management (IPM) training specific to growing corn and soybeans either online or in a classroom.

Although no such training currently exists, the government says the course will be available by this fall — successful completion will result in certification valid for five years.

This is in addition to the Grower Pesticide Safety Course that farmers must already complete in order to buy and use crop protection products in Ontario.

For 2016 the government is proposing a “voluntary” approach that allows the purchase and use of neonic-treated seed on up to 50 per cent of a farmer’s corn or soybean acreage if a written declaration is made. To plant treated seed above that level, farmers must complete a pest assessment to determine whether their levels of infestation by specific pests meet pre-determined thresholds set by government.

Farmers will be able to perform their own pest assessments this year, but as of 2016, those pest assessments will have to be completed by independent, third-party pest advisors, the proposed regulations say.

Under the regulations, two pest assessment methods can be used: a soil pest-scouting assessment to confirm the presence of two pests above thresholds (grubs and wireworms) or a drop damage assessment that will confirm damage as a result of four pests above the thresholds (grubs, wireworms, corn rootworm, and seed corn maggot).

The proposed regulations only target neonicotinoid-treated soybean and corn seed, and don’t include other neonics such as those used in the edible horticulture industry in foliar sprays or granular form.

Environmental activist groups in particular have taken up the bee cause and campaigning actively for this type of legislation, believing neonics to be behind an increase in bee deaths in Ontario in recent years.

The issue isn’t that clear-cut, though, say farm groups, who recognize the importance of addressing bee health in a science-based way, but feel that more research is needed to determine what’s behind the decline in bee numbers.

Simply pointing the finger at neonics won’t solve the problem, they say, as there are a few things that don’t add up.

Not all beekeepers in Ontario have been dealing with bee death, for example, and it hasn’t come forward as a major issue in Western Canada, where neonic-treated seeds are also widely used in canola production.

There is no denying that dust from the use of neonic-treated seeds was a problem, but farmers took action once it was identified, such as changing the fluency agent used during planting to reduce the amount of dust created, and using deflectors to keep dust close to the ground.

This helped dramatically reduce total dust emissions, and bee deaths reported to the Pest Management Regulatory Agency during spring planting in 2014 were down by 70 per cent.

Bee nutrition is a much bigger issue, according to Craig Hunter, pesticide specialist with the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association.

The southwestern Ontario landscape has evolved dramatically over the last several decades: corn and soybean acreage has expanded, hay and pasture acres are down, and farmers have taken out large numbers of fence rows to increase field size. This means fewer forage areas for bees to get food and water, leaving weakened bees that are much more susceptible to threats.

Currently, this is legislation limited only to Ontario. However, it’s worth noting that Ontario was one of the first provinces to institute a ban on cosmetic uses of pesticides in 2009 — and cosmetic use bans are now in place in nine out of 10 Canadian provinces.

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