Tag Archives: Gord Miller

Saving the Pollinators: What Ontario could face if it takes on the Pesticide Companies

In his most recent annual report, Gord Miller, the environmental commissioner of Ontario recommended that, “the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of the Environment undertake monitoring to determine the prevalence and effects of neonicotinoids in soil, waterways and wild plants.”

Sumack, Blue SkyWith 25% of the global pesticide market, neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world. Developed as an alternative to aerial spraying, they are mostly applied as a seed treatment where they diffuse throughout the plant including its sap, pollen and nectar. They are suspected of playing a role in the decline of pollinators such as honey bees along with other stressors such as parasites, habitat degradation, decreased resource diversity, climate change and invasive species.

The European Union banned “neonics” as they are popularly known, some time ago in some but not all agricultural applications. These rulings have been challenged repeatedly, but various courts have upheld the bans, falling back on the precautionary principle in the face of often confusing data and the lack of consistent protocols in determining the impacts, sub-lethal and chronic impacts for example, on pollinators.

“New research on neonicotinoids is being published at an astounding rate, demonstrating an overwhelming level of concern within the scientific community. While much of this research initially focused on the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators, serious issues are being raised surrounding the broader ecological implications of neonicotinoid use,” writes the Commissioner.

An issue that pits manufacturers of a pesticide with a huge reach and the agri-business (87% of the world’s major crops are dependent upon pollinators) against scientific and lay communities with deeply held concerns about its effects on food and the environment represents a very high level of intellectual warfare.

There’s a pattern to this kind of warfare: manufacturers insisting upon the harmlessness of their products buttressed by their own research and litigious and public relation campaigns; highly competitive food producers; funding-strapped, over-worked, over-stretched, publicly-supported scientists; government agencies and their tangled bureaucracies adjudicating these warring parties based on evidence that doesn’t line up or they can’t understand; journalists who rely on press releases; a tax-weary skeptical public; and governments that won’t or can’t or think they shouldn’t be protecting environmental interests in the face of galloping expertise that always exceeds their grasp.

FungiGiven these hazards, Ontario can expect to run into some heavy weather if it attempts to seriously challenge the role of neonics. In 2013, The European Environment Agency published a thoroughly documented account of its exhaustive struggles concerning the neonicotinoid Gaucho® as part of a series called Late Lessons from Early Warnings: science, precaution, innovation. All the players including Bayer the pesticide manufacturer, publicly supported scientists, the beekeeping community, and various EU food-related agencies participated.

Honeybees have been aptly described as bio-warning systems, but they’re actually environments in microcosm, super-organisms, with many moving, highly engineered parts that together amount to a complex community. And all this complexity had to be captured in the EU research.

Difficulties arose at the outset. Researchers could not agree on what dosage was harmful to bees and there were many categories of harm, the fall-down-dead type and sub-lethal and chronic effects that impacted the bees’ physiology and immune system, effects that might become lethal over time or make the colony more prone to diseases.

As it turned out, extraordinarily minute quantities of neonics were causing problems for bees including memory loss and learning, interference with foraging, reduced reproduction and queen production, impaired immune function and increased susceptibility to pathogens. And depending upon the role the bees played and their age their exposure differed. Nectar and pollen stored and then fed to the young enlarged its effects. And effects differed among colonies that bore surprisingly varied genetic signatures.

Bayer had conducted pre-approval studies of the effect of Gaucho® on aphids, which it claimed were ten times more sensitive than honeybees. Other researchers were astonished by this “extrapolative assumption.” Aphids only showed effects in the short term while bees were repeatedly ingesting Gaucho® over the long term.

For Bayer, the gold standard was field and semi-field tests, even though the variables were seemingly infinite and uncontrollable. For this reason the publicly funded scientists preferred laboratory tests, where all the various factors could be held constant.

The publicly funded scientists felt their scientific integrity challenged by Bayer. One stated, “I personally received a letter from Bayer threatening me with a lawsuit for defamation. The letter, written by Bayer’s lawyers, warned of both judicial action and financial reparations.” As well, this researcher’s supervisor was pressed to use his influence with the researcher to modify his conversations with the press, pressure that was resisted.

The challenges continued. After years of work, a scientist suddenly found himself removed from the file. A researcher had his funded project on imidacloprid, the active ingredient in Gaucho® cancelled after much work had been done on it. Bee experts found themselves outnumbered by non-experts on decision-making committees. At one point, the Commission of Toxic Products came out with a decision in favour of Bayer without consulting its own Honeybee Working Group. To make its decision seem more palatable, the agency reframed the purpose of the study as determining whether Gaucho® was responsible for all honeybee deaths in all of France, a ludicrous assumption.

Beekeepers felt the heat as well. Bayer took three of their representatives to court accusing them of discrediting Gaucho®. Fortunately, the courts found against the company, with one judge reprimanding the plaintiff for attempting to intimidate the defendants.

WeedsBy Bayer’s own admission Gaucho® persisted in the soil (188 plus or minus 25 days) longer than the European Union allowable threshold of three months. It cropped in untreated plants. Bees infected with both a particular pathogen and Gaucho® showed higher mortality rates than bees affect by either one.

Long term, seed dressing may prove to be less efficacious than a topical application. Because it exerts a constant pressure on natural selection, it increases the likelihood of the plant becoming resistant. It’s a preventative measure applied whether needed or not, much like the misuse of antibiotics with possibly equally negative results.

What happens on farmers’ fields of course doesn’t stay on farmers’ fields.“Troubling questions are being raised about the broader environmental effects of these pesticides. Only a small portion of the active substance is taken up in seed-treated crops, and the rest enters the environment. This is of concern because neonicotinoids are not only persistent in soil and water, but are also water soluble and highly mobile within ecosystems, ” writes the Commissioner.

Among the lessons learned from the EU experience is, obviously that you can’t rely on insecticide companies or industry to get at the truth, but neither can you reply on environmental groups that are great at setting off bio-alarms, but may pick their agendas to further their survival as organizations. The really wobbly link is public scientists whose existence might be as precarious as the honeybees. These are the people we should be worried about.

Join me in conversation on Twitter @PennyPepperell

Managing New Challenges: Annual Report 2013/2014, Environmental Commissioner of Ontariohttp://www.eco.on.ca/index.php/en_US/pubs/annual-reports-and-supplements/2014-managing-new-challenges

Late Lessons from Early Warnings: science, precaution, innovation, “Chapter 16 seed-dressing systemic insecticides and honeybees,”, European Environment Agency http://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/neonicotinoid-pesticides-are-a-huge

A Damning, (and should be) Show-Stopping Report on Ontario’s Handling of Species at Risk from the Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller

If we hadn’t had our collective head stuck in the Rob Ford saga last week, perhaps more of us would have picked up on the special report on the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) by the Environmental Commissioner, Gord Miller. Laying Siege to the Last Line of Defence: A Review of Ontario’s Weakened Protections for Species at Risk describes: gross over-use of discretionary powers; procrastination; finger-pointing; shielding MNR policies from public input; and scandalous exemptions from the rules for the very proponents most likely to put species at risk.

The environmental commissioner reports directly to parliament. This is not a hackneyed political appointment, and Gord Miller is very good at his job.

Railway bridge with graffiti

It’s not possible to overstate the commissioner’s concerns when the title page reads, “wildlife preservation is a catastrophic, heart-breaking disaster.”

Chief among MNR’s failings is that through regulation, the prohibitions outlined in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) no longer apply to a large number of activities that have been directly responsible for imperiling wildlife in the past. They include forestry operations; hydroelectric generating stations; aggregate pits and quarries; ditch and drainage activities; exploration mining; wind facilities; infrastructure projects; and that’s not the complete list.

Proponents of these activities don’t have to get a permit, only follow “functionally unenforceable” regulations. If these vague, province-wide terms are met, the ministry can’t say no, no matter how important the affected area or the possibility of unacceptable cumulative impacts on a species at risk or its habitat.

In the old days, proponents had to provide an “overall benefit” from their activities; now they have to “minimize” their impact. Mitigation plans and monitoring records? MNR doesn’t want to see them. As a result the ministry doesn’t know what’s going on out there, either with the species at risk or the proponents. If landowners have a hands-on understanding of what’s actually happening to the critters on their property, MNR isn’t going to know about it.

One of the rationales for the new regs, which came into effect in July 2013, is that MNR claims it costs $24,000 or 500 hours to develop an ESA permit, but that’s an average of only 12 cases, one of which was the building of Highway 69/400: hardly typical. Even if permits were actually this time-consuming and expensive, the ministry has only itself to blame, reports the commissioner.

Graffiti tree

“By failing to develop clear and consistent policies to guide the permitting process, MNR created an inefficient and ad hoc approach to permitting that was unnecessarily lengthy, convoluted, costly and extremely frustrating for proponents and other stakeholders.”

The ESA’s mandate is to identify species at risk, protect them and their habitats, and promote their recovery. Currently, Ontario has 215 species identified as at-risk with more imperiled species in the chute awaiting their designation by an expert committee. The act allowed for a five-year window for the ministry to come up with recovery strategies for critters not covered in the previous legislation. The commissioner’s report found that nearly half of these strategies have been delayed with “questionable rationales.”

In some cases, MNR claims it is waiting for the feds, which has its own at-risk list and commensurate requirements, before coming up with Ontario-appropriate plans. But checking the files, the environmental commissioner found the province often waiting in vain, either because the province had overlooked the fact that the feds had already dealt with this matter, or in other cases that the critters in question weren’t on the feds at-risk list to begin with.

Some species may not get a provincial recovery strategy until 12 years after they were first listed.  Other species are waiting 20 years for a plan for “population maintenance”, when in fact the legislation stipulates that what’s required is a plan for “population recovery.” The commissioner’s report characterizes this behaviour as tantamount to MNR disobeying the act.

The reliance upon generic regulations  rather than specific applications that must be read, understood, declined or approved means that, “every place no matter how unique or important will be open to activities with the potential to adversely affect species at risk.”

Rescue Ring Don River

The public doesn’t know what’s going on. The requirement that the ministry post its permits online has been rendered moot by MNR’s selective no-permit-necessary policy. Although the public provided input on the regulatory amendments that established the rules for the new exemptions, a draft of the regulations was never posted, only a description.

“There is a clear trend of MNR deliberately shielding its policies on species at risk from public input,” reads the report. For example, MNR explained its failure to post its Best Management Practices with regards to woodland caribou on the Environmental Registry, by characterizing its BMR as  “technical information”, although it saw fit to consult a number of industry associations about them.

“MNR’s failure to post these policies [disguised as technical information] on the Environmental Registry for public consultation constitutes a shocking disregard for its legal obligations under the Environmental Bill of Rights and the process set out under the ESA.”

The environmental commissioner lays the blame for this crisis entirely at the feet of the ministry and not the act itself. “MNR has failed to do what is necessary to make the law work. The ministry has been stalling recovery strategies, crafting meaningless government response statements, delaying habitat protection, mismanaging the permitting process and deliberately ignoring public participation.”

The particular species designated as at risk are stand-ins for all the others who aren’t on the list—yet. When we fail them we are damaging the biodiversity of the province, making it more prone to collapse. When that happens, we’ll be the last to know.