Representatives from multinational chemical manufacturers are descending on the House of Commons on Tuesday for hearings into a proposed phaseout of a pesticide linked the global decline of honeybees.
The substance, imidacloprid, is part of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. It is now used to control insects on crops as well as on lawns. In households, neonicotinoids can be used to control ticks, fleas and lice on cats and dogs.
Last year, Health Canada proposed to ban the pesticide through a three- to five-year phaseout, noting that it was being found in levels that were harmful to aquatic insects.
"These insects are an important part of the ecosystem, including as a food source for fish, birds and other animals. Based on currently available information, the continued high volume use of imidacloprid in agricultural areas is not sustainable," the Health Department said in November.
"The environmental assessment also found that there is a potential risk to birds and small mammals from feeding on seeds that are treated with imidacloprid, however, it is expected that good agricultural practices and equipment could reduce this type of exposure."
The federal government said it didn't identify any human health concerns associated with the pesticide if it was being used "according to current label standards."
Scheduled to testify before the Commons agriculture committee on Tuesday are representatives from pesticide manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta, as well as from CropLife, an industry lobby group that represents a number of chemical companies including Bayer, Monsanto, Dow and DuPont.
Officials from Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency will also appear at the hearings in the morning. But environmental organizations, who are scheduled to appear on Thursday, are questioning why the pesticide industry needs to be there.
Environmentalist criticizes 'industry lobbying effort'
John Bennett, a senior policy advisor with Friends of the Earth Canada, said the phaseout should be a purely scientific decision, without political interference or lobbying from industry. He questioned why the House committee would weigh in on the ban.
“They shouldn’t be messing in an administrative decision, especially a scientific one,” he said. “Why are they doing it? The only conclusion is that it’s part of an industry lobbying effort,” he said. Friends of the Earth was one of several organizations that signed a joint press release on Monday questioning the format of the House committee meetings.
Imidacloprid can linger in the environment for as long as 18 months after it is sprayed – four times as long as pesticides like Monsanto’s Roundup, Bennett said. Despite that, pesticides containing the chemical are widely used in Canada:
“These pesticides are practically sprayed on everything you eat that isn’t marked organic – almost every feed corn, every soy bean, every potato,” he said. “It’s really good at killing the insects that chomp into the crop, but it’s also really good at killing everything else as well."
Environmental groups generally welcomed the regulatory agency's decision, but many, including Friends of the Earth, favoured an immediate ban instead of the three- to five-year phaseout plan, which Bennett called a “slow motion ban.”
“The irony of these (neonicotinoid) pesticides is that they are targeted – they were not supposed to kill everything,” Bennett said. But research has shown that the chemical, which is found in several brands of common pesticides, can destabilize entire ecosystems by killing insects that are important food sources for animals, including fish, birds and frogs. Research from scientists at Harvard has also pointed to imidacloprid as the likely cause of the global decline in honeybees.
“This could have significant implications for biodiversity in Canada. This could create dead zones,” Bennett said.
Ban is 'a done deal almost," says Liberal MP Pat Finnigan
Liberal MP Pat Finnigan, who chairs the committee, told National Observer that the decision to ban the pesticide appeared to be “a done deal almost,” but that industry representatives had contacted the committee and asked to present their concerns. He said the committee will provide testimony for that public review, but the choice to ban or not will be up to scientists at the PMRA.
“All studies that we’ve done, we try to get a balanced view of different opinions on the topic,” Finnigan said. “The industry side are saying that there is no other product that will do it, and it will cost them greatly and incur crop loss; the other side is saying it’s valuable to ban that product because it’s having a detrimental effect on bees and other organisms.”
Representatives from the David Suzuki Foundation and Équiterre are among the environmentalists scheduled to testify at a second hearing on Thursday. Two industry associations representing Ontario agricultural producers will also testify, including the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, which has opposed the ban.
Imidacloprid is one of three neonicotinoid pesticides that the PMRA is currently reviewing. Vancouver and Montreal have already banned imidacloprid, and Ontario and Quebec have also introduced plans to reduce the use of the pesticides.
Members of the public or any other interested parties have until March 23 to provide comments or suggestions to Health Canada before it finalizes its decision.