WELLINGTON CTY. - Ontario’s agriculture sector remains divided in response to a government proposal to curb the use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds in the province after studies showed their detrimental effects on pollinators—specifically honeybees.
The proposal, introduced for comment on Nov. 25, would see an 80 per cent reduction in acres planted with seeds treated with neonicotinoids (NNI) by 2017 and the establishment of a Pollinator Health Action Plan aimed at reducing the over-winter honeybee mortality rate to 15% by 2020. The current rate is 58%.
The proposed plan is welcome news for many beekeepers, but it has Ontario’s grain farmers concerned about yield loss.
Grain Farmers of Ontario chair Henry Van Ankum says the organization is “very disappointed” with the proposal and feels the restrictions are too “extreme.”
“It puts the crops growing in our fields at a lot more risk for potential insect damage and that could cause concern and could certainly cause a decrease in yields,” he said.
“It could cause serious economic harm to the farm families who are growing crops in this province.”
Van Ankum says many of the products used in the past are no longer licensed and therefore not a viable alternative. He says without some kind of protection, crops could experience yield losses of 10 to 30% annually, amounting to a $600-billion hit to the province’s agriculture sector.
Since beekeepers identified the pesticide use as a problem, Ontario’s grain farmers have been trying to work with them to find a middle ground by using an additive to control dust while planting to reduce the exposure for pollinators - but it is unrealistic to totally rule out the use of NNIs, said Van Ankum.
“It’s a very difficult situation because this has been a valuable tool for farmers to use and access is going to be restricted,” he told the Advertiser.
“This is really going to create winners and losers in the farming community and the losers are going to be crop farmers who can’t protect their crops from insects.”
Bees become exposed to the chemicals through nectar, pollen and contaminated dust generated during the planting of NNI seeds. This can create confusion for bees, making it difficult for them to feed, to find their way back to the hive and to create new queens. It also weakens their immune system.
Third-generation beekeeper Jim Coneybeare, owner and operator of Coneybeare Honey just north of Fergus, is second vice president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association.
An avid spokesperson against the use of NNIs in Wellington County, Coneybeare says the government’s proposal is a huge step forward for the honey industry.
“We congratulate and are very appreciative of the Ontario government taking action to protect honeybees and other pollinators,” he said. “It’s a recognition that there is a loss.”
Coneybeare said before widespread use of NNI, his over-winter losses hovered around five to 10%. In 2012, he says 35% of his hives were completely dead and 25% heavily affected.
Though Coneybeare admits there are other contributing factors to honeybee survival, none come close to the damage inflicted by NNIs.
“There has been the [threat] of the varroa mite since the early 90s, but we have methods and practices to mitigate their effects – we measure that and control it, that’s how we know it’s not varroa,” he explained.
Coneybeare says the recent losses he has incurred make beekeeping an unsustainable industry going forward if action is not taken.
He has joined an ongoing $450-million class action lawsuit against two of the major NNI producers: Bayer CropScience Inc. and Syngenta Canada Inc. and their parent companies.
Coneybeare explained his monetary losses were between $250,000 to $300,000 last year, so he has been forced to relocate many of his hives to Grey County, where farmers plant 75% less corn and soybeans than Wellington County.
“I moved farther north to get away from the NNI-treated crops and I moved those hives in August and September  and my winter losses in the north were 50% of what they were back here in Wellington County,” he said.
Coneybeare acknowledges that in some cases NNI-treated seeds are a necessity, but not in the amount they are currently being planted.
“They need it sometimes in sandy soil and sandy situations or where wire worm might be present following a field being in pasture or hay,” he said.
“But research says [only] about 20% of the crop needs to be treated.”
In a statement, Minister of Agriculture Jeff Leal said, “we know, and farmers recognize, there are certain risks associated with the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
“We also know that, in certain circumstances, they are an important tool for farmers and can help to increase production and maintain a reliable food supply for our province.”
Leal says the aim is to find a balance that can support the pollinator population and meet the needs of Ontario’s grain farmers.
“We will work with farmers, beekeepers and all others impacted by this to implement a plan sensitive to their needs,” Leal said. “I look forward to working collaboratively with our partners as we move toward a balanced, practical approach that improves the health of Ontario’s pollinators, protects the environment and supports the growth of the agri-food sector.”
Of the seven million acres of crops planted each year in Ontario, corn and soybeans are the largest share, with around 2.4 and 2.5 million acres respectively. Currently about 99% of corn and 60% of soybean seed sold in the province is treated with NNIs.
Ontario’s honeybee industry generates $26 million annually and bees are responsible for pollinating $897 million worth of $6.7 billion in crop sales, including apples, cherries, peaches, plums, cucumbers, asparagus, squash, pumpkins and melons.
The government report will be available for comment until Jan. 25. After that the government will consider all input with the hope of having new measures in place by July 1, 2015 and fully implemented by the 2016 growing season.
This story was originally published on Wellington Advertiser.