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Grain farmers press for delay on insecticide ban in Ontario

The Ontario Beekeepers’ Association says bees learned long ago to cope with viruses, unlike what supporters of neonicotinoids say.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

A group representing Ontario grain farmers says the provincial government's plan to restrict the use of an insecticide blamed for a growing number of bee deaths will hurt them financially, and could lead to increased spraying of pesticides that are more damaging to the environment and humans.

The Grain Farmers of Ontario says the proposal to require commercial growers to apply for permits to use neonicotinoid pesticides should be put on hold until the completion of various research projects, including a three-year field test of new planting methods adopted last spring.

"Right now, farmers do not have the tools to predict if they would need [neonicotinoids] or not," said Barry Senft, chief executive officer of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, which represents 28,000 growers of corn, canola and other crops.

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Ontario said it would soon start consultations with beekeepers and grain growers about how to develop a system that limits the use of the pesticides, based on weather, soil conditions and historical data.

"We'll be looking at a very balanced approach based on sound science," Jeff Leal, Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, told reporters on Monday. "We'll be looking at a number of options and of course the licensing option is something that we want to look at very, very carefully."

All corn and canola and half of the soybean seeds planted in Canada are coated by the manufacturers with neonicotinoids, a pesticide that guards the seed and resulting plant against grubs, worms and other insects. The chemicals, which have been temporarily banned in Europe, are linked to the collapse in populations of bees and other pollinators that are responsible for a third of the food humans eat. Proponents of the pesticide say bees are being killed by viruses, harsh winters and loss of habitat, and that more studies need to be completed.

Tibor Szabo, vice-president of the Ontario Beekeepers' Association, said beekeepers learned long ago to cope with viruses, and the bee deaths that are gripping his industry are due to the consumption of pollen poisoned by neonicotinoids. He said the licensing system is vital to the survival of the province's honey industry, which has seen bee deaths soar.

"Beekeepers are very much behind it because it offers a solution to everybody," he said from his bee yard near Guleph, Ont. "Farmers have it available to them if they need it, and if they don't need it they certainly shouldn't be using it because it is causing huge grief to the beekeeping community and untold grief to the environment."

The use of neonicotinoids became widespread in Canada in the late 2000s. The chemicals are much safer for mammals than older pesticides and can obviate the need for a grower to spray other pesticides on a crop.

Mr. Senft said farmers might have to fall back on the older class of pesticides, organophosphates, which can be toxic to humans.

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"No one wants to go back to those days," Mr. Senft said. "But you do what you need to do."

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