Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency said March 31 that it’s possible for farmers to use neonicotinoid insecticides on most crops, with some reduction in rates and frequency of use.
“Health Canada’s scientists have reviewed a large body of scientific information and concluded that a complete ban on neonicotinoid pesticides is not warranted,” it said.
“The additional risk mitigation actions announced in today’s final decisions, such as reducing the rate of applications and spray buffer zones, will address the risks posed to aquatic insects.”
The specific changes include lower rates of neonic seed treatment on corn and soybeans and reduced foliar rates on potatoes.
The changes take effect in 24 months.
Health Canada’s position has changed nearly 180 degrees from 2018, when it said clothianidin, a Bayer insecticide, and thiamethoxam, a Syngenta product, must be banned.
“Following special reviews for two neonicotinoid pesticides … Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has found that these substances are being measured at levels that are harmful to aquatic insects … which are a source of food for fish, birds and other animals,” the PMRA said in August 2018.
Because of the risk to midges and mayflies, the PMRA proposed a ban on agricultural and outdoor uses of thiamethoxam and clothianidin.
The two neonics are used on tens of millions of acres across Canada. Nearly every canola seed and corn seed, and a portion of soybean acres, are coated with a neonicotinoid prior to planting. They are also applied to fruit, vegetables and berry crops.
Canola growers rely on neonics to control flea beetles early in the growing season. Many agronomists and canola experts believe that without seed treatments, farmers would have to spray more insecticides over the crop to kill flea beetles.
The Canadian Canola Growers Association and the Canola Council praised Health Canada’s final decision on the neonics.
“Our competitiveness as an agriculture sector relies on a regulatory system built on rigorous scientific analysis and evidence-based decision making,” said Curtis Rempel, vice-president of crop production and innovation with the canola council. “We’re pleased that PMRA allowed time to consider all the relevant data to arrive at a decision based on the best science available,”
Shifting from a proposed ban on a class of insecticides to permitting use with certain changes is an unusual step for the PMRA. Normally, when a government agency proposes a ban, it sticks with the decision.
“A proposed decision by a regulator like the PMRA is (usually) seen as a done deal by a lot of other countries. It’s certainly viewed as a done deal by the NGOs (non-governmental organizations),” said Marla Trainer of CropLife Canada in 2019.
Many NGOs were not pleased with Health Canada’s reversal.
Six environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, slammed the PMRA.
“We are not convinced that tinkering with label restrictions will be effective in reducing concentrations of neonics in the environment. Certainly it will be less effective than the originally proposed ban,” said Charlotte Dawe, conservation and policy campaigner with the Wilderness Committee.
In 2016, the PMRA proposed to ban imidacloprid, another Bayer neonic, because it was accumulating in water bodies near agricultural land, mostly in Ontario. That was followed by the 2018 proposal to ban the other two neonics.
The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association and other farm groups pushed back, saying the bans were based on computer models estimating neonic concentrations — not actual data on the amount of neonics in creeks and ponds.
In response, the PMRA created a working group to study neonics and water bodies. The working group included provincial governments, commodity groups and scientists.
In Western Canada, the Canadian Canola Growers Association and Alberta Agriculture collected and analyzed water samples near canola fields to test ponds, creeks and wetlands for the presence of neonics.
Both groups found tiny concentrations of neonics at levels below the threshold of risk to aquatic insects.
The PMRA, in its decision, agreed with the water monitoring data from the Prairies and other parts of Canada.
“Based on these data it was determined that the risks to aquatic invertebrates resulting from chronic exposure following application of clothianidin under certain currently registered conditions are acceptable.”
PMRA scientists came to the same conclusion about thiamethoxam.
In 2013, Europe basically banned neonics to protect bees because some research suggested the insecticides were a threat to pollinators.
That decision put pressure on Health Canada to follow suit. Western Canadian beekeepers supported the use of neonic seed treatments, arguing they’re safer than foliar insecticides, but the Ontario Beekeepers Association aggressively lobbied against neonics.
After studying the matter for six years, the PMRA took a measured approach. In 2019 it restricted some uses of neonics, such as spraying on orchard trees, but said neonic seed treatments on canola, corn and other crops don’t pose a risk to bees.
Much like its position on neonics and bees, the PMRA has taken a balanced approach with aquatic insects. Uses on canola are unchanged, but farmers must now use lower rates of neonics on the seed of corn and soybeans, and apply less neonics to a number of vegetable crops. For more information, click here and here.
Some environmental groups say Health Canada should adopt a European model when it comes to pesticides and adopt the precautionary principle, in which agricultural technologies are banned out of caution.
But that’s not happening.
“Canada is not applying the precautionary approach to pesticide registration,” said Kathleen Cooper of the Canadian Environmental Law Association.