The Ontario government has drafted a Pollinator Health Action Plan to address the problem of heavy mortality among wild and managed pollinators. For example: winter losses of honey bees rose to 58 percent in 2014. A major concern is the risk to crops reliant on pollinators. These crops are valued at about $897 million per year in Ontario, and are an important part of the province's food supply.
There are multiple factors contributing to high pollinator mortality. These include:
- pesticide exposure (particularly to a relatively new class of pesticide, neonicotinoids ("neonics"))
- degradation of pollinator habitat and food sources
- diseases, pests and genetics
- climate change and weather
The government is proposing to greatly reduce neonics where they are used most: in corn and soybean production. The aspirational target is an 80 per cent reduction in acreage using seeds coated with three specified neonics (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and clothianidin) by 2017. This reduction would be achieved by a variety of measures, including licensing and a requirement to demonstrate the presence of pests above a specified threshold. One concern is widespread preventive use in the face of limited evidence of need. The overall aspirational target is a reduction of winter honey bee mortality to 15 per cent.
Although the proposal is a significant step in the right direction, RNAO is calling for a complete ban that covers all neonicotinoids.
RNAO has been involved in a coalition promoting a ban on neonics. This very same coalition has helped to drive an advertising campaign warning of the dangers of neonics (see ad in the appendix). There has been considerable media interest in the campaign.
The Problem with Neonics
Neonics are insecticides. They work by attacking nerve receptors in insects. They are toxic to animals, but more toxic to insects than to mammals. Lethal and sub-lethal exposures are both problematic. We know that sub-lethal exposures can compromise the health of pollinators, which makes them susceptible to diseases and parasites. Neonics are water soluble, which means they can readily move into bodies of water. They are also persistent, which means they can, over time, continue to compromise animal and insect health. Biodiversity suffers not only due to the direct effects on vertebrates and invertebrates; the removal of many pollinators from the environment affects the success of plants and removes a substantial source of sustenance from creatures further up the food chain. There is strong consensus that neonics can harm pollinators and other invertebrates and vertebrates. The research has been summarized by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides which examined more than 800 peer-reviewed scientific papers on the topic over the past 20 years and published its conclusions in 2014 (see appendix). The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has provided a brief summary of science on neonicotinoids (see appendix). Both conclude that neonics harm pollinators and that action is necessary. In the face of the evidence and the concern that use of neonics adds to the toxic load we all carry, a precautionary approach is warranted. The onus to prove safety and effectiveness ought to rest with the proponent of a given toxic. The evidence on adverse effects was sufficiently compelling that the European Commission voted to restrict the use of the three neonics listed above for two years. This happened after the European Food Safety Authority identified that neonics represented significant risks to bees.
Download the full backgrounder with appendix below.