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Ontario farmers prepare for fight against pesticide laws

Corn grows in a field near Hensall, Ont. on July 21, 2014. Five busloads of farmers are due to converge Wednesday on a downtown Toronto courthouse, where their lawyers will fight Ontario laws that restrict the use of pesticides blamed for the decline of bees and other pollinators.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Five busloads of farmers are due to converge Wednesday on a downtown Toronto courthouse, where their lawyers will fight Ontario laws that restrict the use of pesticides blamed for the decline of bees and other pollinators.

"It's not a protest. They just really want to show support in the court and hear what's going on," said Mark Brock, chairman of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, the group that is appealing a court ruling that upheld the Ontario law that bans the use of three popular pesticides known as neonicotinoids on corn and soybeans beginning next year.

He said that by midday on Tuesday about 120 farmers had signed up for a seat on one of the buses, which will depart early Wednesday from Cornwall, London and three other Ontario towns.

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Eric Gillespie, lawyer for the grain farmers, will ask the three-judge panel for a new hearing, and to delay the implementation of the regulations farmers say will leave their crops vulnerable to hungry worms and insects.

After the farmers lost their first court battle against neonics, Mr. Gillespie said, new information has come from the federal government's Pest Management Regulatory Agency that "appears to indicate" the effects of some neonics on bees has been overstated. Growers face "negative financial consequences" if they lose the ability to use the pesticides, he added.

"We're asking the Court of Appeal, 'Is there somewhere that a case can be brought?' And we're saying there is new evidence since the last hearing," Mr. Gillespie said by phone.

Until this year, almost all Ontario corn and 60 per cent of soybean seeds were treated with neonics, which protect the plant and its roots from insects. Beekeepers and others say the chemicals are responsible for the loss of bees and other insect pollinators.

Next year, Ontario corn and soybean growers cannot plant seeds treated with neonicotinoids unless pest assessments show that their crops are vulnerable to insects. For the 2016 growing season, half their cropland must be neonics-free.

Beekeepers and other groups have decried the widespread use of the chemicals, which the Ontario government says are needed on just 20 per cent of the farmland.

The province took its controversial step amid a growing body of studies that shows bees and other insects are being adversely affected by widespread applications of neonics.

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Much of Europe has halted the use of three neonics while the United States is working on a plan to control their use to protect pollinators. Quebec has also taken steps to restrict their use.

Tibor Szabo, president of the Ontario Beekeepers' Association, noted that the Ontario regulations are silent on the concentration of neonics, allowing farmers to use heavier doses or rates of application.

But he called the reductions this year "better than nothing," and said the coming ban is welcome news for beekeepers, who have endured years of having to pay to replace dead hives.

"We've had bee poisoning on a very large scale for years now. It's just staggering for beekeepers to try to keep their business going," said Mr. Szabo, who breeds queen bees south of Guelph. "We need some relief from this."

Mr. Brock, who grows grain in Southwestern Ontario, said the pest assessments required under the new law are difficult to perform and might not be accurate, given that they are conducted on land that has been previously subjected to insecticides.

He said the required paperwork is onerous. "For my farm, I had to fill out 23 pages of paperwork," he said.

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"We're not opposed to regulation. We're just trying to make sure that there's one in place that satisfies government's concern around ensuring pollinators are healthy but at the same time it doesn't put a crimp on our business," Mr. Brock said.

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