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Health Canada fiddles while bees burned by pesticides

June 23, 2013

[Update - 4 Jul 2013 - Unfortunately the bee deaths in 2012 were apparently not a one time event, with reports that tens of millions of honey bees have died this summer in one town in Ontario, apparently due to exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides.  In other neonicotinoid and bee related news, a study out of the UK has found that exposure to these pesticides changes the genes in bees.]

Earlier this month, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), an arm of Health Canada that regulates pesticides, released its report into the deaths of honey bees in Ontario and Quebec that occurred in the Spring of 2012 – concluding that certain pesticides (known as neonicotinoids) likely played a role:

The information evaluated suggests that planting of corn seeds treated with the nitro guanidine insecticides clothianidin and/or thiamethoxam contributed to the majority of the bee mortalities that occurred in corn growing regions of Ontario and Quebec in Spring 2012. The likely route of exposure was insecticide contaminated dust generated during the planting of treated corn seed. The unusual weather conditions in the spring of 2012 were likely also a contributing factor.

Although the number of bees affected is not listed in the report, more than 40 bee keepers were affected, and 248 different sites.

Just last week an estimated 50,000 bumblebees died in Oregon, in an incident that has been attributed to another neonicotinoid pesticide – Safari – used to treat 55 Linden trees for aphids, although it should be noted that that particular pesticide is not approved for use in Canada.

These are the very same class of pesticides that the EU has recently banned, citing the risk to honey bees.  The BBC, covering the story, refers to some of the studies that have linked neonicotinoids to honey bee declines:

A report published by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) in January concluded that the pesticides posed a "high acute risk" to pollinators, including honeybees.  However, it added that in some cases it was "unable to finalise the assessments due to shortcomings in the available data." …

There have been a number of studies showing that the chemicals, made by Bayer and Syngenta, do have negative impacts on bees. One study suggested that neonicotinoids affected the abilities of hives to produce queen bees. More recent research indicated that the pesticides damaged their brains.

But the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) argues that these studies were mainly conducted in the laboratory and do not accurately reflect field conditions.

The PMRA study is a field study, and so helps plug the hole that the UK government was pointing to. 

The PMRA’s response

So how is the PMRA dealing with the worrying discovery that neonicotinoids are playing a role in the loss of bees? 

The Sierra Club of Canada, even before the PMRA’s report was released, has been pressing for an immediate ban on the use of these pesticides.  You can sign their petition here.

The PMRA has taken a less aggressive approach.  In the mid- to long-term the PMRA is reviewing the safety of the pesticides in question, which could result in them being phased out.  But, as we’ve reported previously, an earlier review of the pesticide Endosulfan took the better part of a decade to complete, so that may not be cause for immediate celebration.  In addition, the PMRA has suggested various mid- to long-term programs or research that the industry might undertake to address the risks to bees. 

In the short-term, however, the PMRA has released a pollinator protection strategy document.  The strategy relies fairly heavily on a series of “best practices” developed by industry.  The only legal changes are amendments to the labels of some (although at this time not all) of the pesticides containing the offending ingredients.  The new language reads:

[Name of active ingredient(s)] is toxic to bees. Dust generated during planting of treated seed may be harmful to bees and other pollinators. To help minimize the dust generated during planting, refer to the "Best Management Practices for Seed-Applied Insecticides" available at Crop Life (or 613-230-9881).

Any spilled or exposed seeds must be incorporated into the soil or otherwise cleaned-up from the soil surface.

Crop Life is an industry association representing pesticide manufacturers. Note that the requirement to “refer to” a document is not legally binding language.  Moreover, the tone of the Best Management Practices document, once you find it (we found it difficult to find on the Crop Life website), is aimed at downplaying the risks of these pesticides to honey bees and other pollinators:

We believe our products do not pose a long-term risk to bee health based on available scientific data, extensive field experience, and independent government monitoring programs. … However, short-term exposure of bees to seed-treatment insecticides should be minimized.

This document does not, for example, make farmers aware of the several studies, including the new PMRA report, indicating that there is a risk to honey bees, or of the fact that the EU has banned the pesticides for that reason.  The precautions it describes are framed very much as a courtesy to bee hive owners and a very (perhaps overly) cautious approach. 

On another note, the PMRA report seems to find that another, unrelated pesticide, Phosmat, also may be impacting bee populations:

… [P]hosmet, which is toxic to honey bees … was detected at high levels in samples collected close to apple orchards where phosmet is commonly used …

There is no indication in the report what follow up steps, if any, are being taken in relation to protecting bees from Phosmat.

The PMRA and the Precautionary Principle

The EU decision to ban neonicotinoid pesticides has been heralded as an application of the “precautionary principle”.  The precautionary principle, recognized under Canadian law, as well as in a range of international treaties, holds that governments should not use a lack of scientific certainty as a reason to refrain from taking immediate action.  The principle has been cited by the Supreme Court of Canada in relation to pesticide regulation(by local governments):

The interpretation of [pesticide] By-law 270 contained in these reasons respects international law’s “precautionary principle”, which is defined as follows at para. 7 of the Bergen Ministerial Declaration on Sustainable Development (1990):

In order to achieve sustainable development, policies must be based on the precautionary principle. Environmental measures must anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental degradation. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.

… In the context of the precautionary principle’s tenets, the Town’s concerns about pesticides fit well under their rubric of preventive action.

Interestingly, the Pest Control Products Act, which mandates the PMRA to regulate pesticides, explicitly adopts a version of the precautionary principle:

Precautionary principle

(2) Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent adverse health impact or environmental degradation.

Indeed, this precautionary principle is to be applied specifically in cases where information found during the course of a review may require an immediate cancellation:

The Minister may cancel or amend the registration of a pest control product if … in the course of a re-evaluation or special review, the Minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the cancellation or amendment is necessary to deal with a situation that endangers human health or safety or the environment, taking into account the precautionary principle …

The Act also requires the PMRA to consider whether the risks of a pesticide are “acceptable,” a term it defines very narrowly:

[T]he health or environmental risks of a pest control product are acceptable if there is reasonable certainty that no harm to human health, future generations or the environment will result from exposure to or use of the product, taking into account its conditions or proposed conditions of registration.

Finally, the Act puts the onus of demonstrating that a pesticide’s risks are acceptable on the pesticide manufacturers. 

More action needed from the PMRA

It seems reasonably clear from the PMRA’s report that neonicotinoids are having a measurable negative impact on honey bees and other pollinators, and thus pose an unacceptable risk to the environment (not to mention the economic interests of bee keepers) within the meaning of the PCPA. 

Between the law that pesticide manufacturers must demonstrate that pesticides’ risks are acceptable and the precautionary principle, the PMRA has a clear mandate to take immediate action to stop the use of neonicotinoids in situations in which pollinators may be affected.  It has chosen not to. 

While the PMRA’s report is welcome, its half-hearted, industry-deferential response to the report’s findings seems to call into question the PMRA’s approach to the regulation of pesticides. 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer

Photo by Bob Peterson, shared from Wikimedia Commons on a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.