by SUSAN MANN
Grain Farmers of Ontario and other farm-related groups are watching to ensure the Ontario government abides by its own rules to introduce environmental protection measures during implementation of proposed neonicotinoid-treated seed regulations, says Mark Brock, GFO chair.
And despite the agricultural industry’s attempts to slow down the introduction of regulations governing neonicotinoid-treated seed use and sale in Ontario, the province is still on track to introduce the new rules July 1, says Kate Jordan, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, one of the ministries involved. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is the other.
Brock says the agricultural groups will continue trying to “engage government and make them realize these rushed timelines just aren’t going to work very well for producers, especially during this time of year.” He adds he’s in his tractor planting soybeans. “Our (farmers’) focus now is on maintaining our businesses and getting crops planted in a timely fashion.”
Grain Farmers hasn’t ruled out legal action against the government but so far it hasn’t consulted legal representatives. “We haven’t decided either way, but it’s definitely one of those options that’s on the table right now,” Brock says.
In November 2014, the two provincial ministries introduced a proposal to cut the soybean and corn acreage planted with neonicotinoid-treated seeds by 80 per cent by 2017. Concerns about the seed treatment’s negative effects on bee health prompted the government to act.
The treated seeds will be regulated under a new class in the Ontario Pesticides Act, Class 12, with rules governing the seeds’ sale and use.
The government’s goal as part of its pollinator health action plan is to reduce overwintering bee mortality to 15 per cent by 2020. Losses in Ontario were pegged at 58 per cent last year and about 30 to 35 per cent this year.
On the government’s environmental regulatory registry the treated seed regulations are described as a “first step” and intentions are declared to address other bee stressors such as habitat loss, climate change and pests. The proposed regulations were posted on the registry in March and the comment period closed 45 days later on May 7.
Pierre Petelle, CropLife Canada vice-president, chemistry, calls legal action “a last resort.” He says the pesticide and plant biotechnology trade group is “still hopeful that the government will come back and want to engage in meaningful dialogue.”
Now that the comment period for the proposed regulations is closed, it’s time for the government to answer the questions CropLife raised in its submission, says Petelle. “There are a lot of aspects to this regulation that, right now the way it’s written, are completely unworkable.”
He calls the plan to address these questions between the end of the comment period and when the regulations take effect – a span of less than two months – “a farce.”
“There’s no way they’re seriously taking in the comments and giving them careful consideration in time to have any bearing on what the regs look like on July 1,” Petelle says.
Even though the government argues discussions on the proposed neonicotinoid regulations have been ongoing since November 2014, Petelle counters, “it hasn’t been meaningful dialogue.”
That’s evident, he says, because government personnel are talking about an untested and unrealistic methodology for pest scouting that will be applied to millions of acres in Ontario even though the farm community has pointed out many flaws in the proposal. “Professional independent agrologists we’ve spoken to, to the last one, have almost laughed at the proposal,” Petelle says. He adds all major farm groups and associations in Ontario and Canada are unanimously opposed to the government’s neonicotinoid-treated seed regulations.
That the government is completely ignoring all the farm groups is “baffling really,” he says.
Stephen Denys, Pride Seeds vice-president, sales and marketing, agrees the regulations are problematic. For example, farmers wanting to buy neonicotinoid-treated seeds for next year need to assess their fields now to determine if seeds next year could face insect pressure. But since the proposed new regulations don’t come into effect until July, the protocols for how to do the assessments and the required training course for farmers are unavailable.
Moreover, the assessments (once the requirement for independent, third-party assessments are phased in) will average $300 per field and take up to four hours per field to do, he estimates.
Denys predicts the new regulations will produce extensive consolidation in Ontario’s seed industry which will in turn result in reduced choice for farmers. Currently, about 600 farm-based dealers sell more than 50 per cent of the seed sold in Ontario, he explains. They are farmers who sell seed in addition to farming. Much of the effort of complying with the new regulations will fall on the shoulders of these vendors. They will need to do all of the tracking and store pest assessments for farmers for five years – and undertake the associated liability and risk. They won’t want the hassles, says Denys, who also grows cash crops on 650 acres just outside of Chatham.
Jordan says officials are reviewing the submissions from the environmental registry posting. She didn’t have numbers yet on how many responses where received or how many were from the agricultural industry.
“All the comments will be carefully considered as we move forward with finalizing the regulation,” she says. A summary of the comments will be posted on the environmental regulatory registry. Any proposed amendments to the draft will also be posted there.
Since it’s a regulation that will be under the Ontario Pesticides Act and not an act in its own right, it doesn’t need approval from cabinet or the Ontario legislature. “It would just come into force,” she explains.
In response to Denys’ concerns about the pest assessments, Jordan says the regulation did propose a phase-in period. For 2016 farmers could still buy and use neonicotinoid-treated seeds without pest assessments as “long as it wasn’t greater than 50 per cent of their acreage.” Anything above that amount would require a pest assessment.
The proposed phase-in would provide farmers with “ample time to become trained to do the pest assessment if they choose to” and still be able to use neonicotinoid-treated seeds on some of their acres, she says.
About Denys’ concern on seed industry consolidation, Jordan says those are business decisions by vendors and she “couldn’t really speculate on what may or may not happen” as a result of the regulations.
Jordan says current science indicates bee and overall pollinator health is declining and Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency attributed “the majority” of the pollinator deaths to neonicotinoid insecticide exposure. “That is one of the pieces of research that we did look at when we were developing the draft regulations,” she says.
The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association has recommended in its submission to the environmental registry the province stage the regulation’s implementation with only a few counties in each region having to meet requirements starting in 2016. The group’s concern is there aren’t enough qualified people to carry out the professional pest assessments for farmers to receive prompt and timely service.
Andrew Graham, association executive director, says in addition to filing a response to the proposed regulations, the organization provided its document to members who’ve signed up to get association emails and encouraged them as individuals to also respond before the May 7 deadline.
Graham says the association has taken all opportunities to meet with government officials “to try and better understand what the government has in mind. We’ve also been spurred to suggest some recommendations to government given the direction they’re wanting to take this.”
Commenting on government proposals when given the opportunity falls within the organization’s mandate, he says, noting “our members are very deeply concerned” and the organization is committed to innovations in soil and crop development. In fact, association members would be surprised and concerned if the organization didn’t respond when given the opportunity.
The association isn’t a lobby group like Grain Farmers or the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, but that doesn’t mean it can’t comment on proposals or file formal responses through normal channels that are available to all citizens and groups, he notes.
The association filing responses to proposals affecting farmers “fits very well with our strategic directions in terms of producer awareness,” Graham says.
For its part, the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association has said the government’s proposed regulations don’t go far enough and the proposed pesticide Class 12 should be expanded to include any systemic pesticide and the three-year implementation in major corn and soybean growing areas of Ontario is unreasonably too long and should be shortened.
The regulations still enable farmers who need neonicotinoid-treated seeds to use the product, the Beekeepers has said. The regulations just eliminate unnecessary use. BF