Neonics: a pretense at control?

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Urban beekeeper Alexandre McLean, Tribune jeunesse president Louis-Philip Prévost and municipal councillor Michèle Arseneault inaugurate four urban hives in St. Bruno’s parc Frère-Marcel-Alary. (stbruno.ca/ruches)

The question above reflects a discussion in Canadian municipalities over how far they can or should go in regulating neonicitinoid pesticides, the insect-killing family of chemicals similar to tobacco’s active ingredient. 

At its monthly meeting April 15, St. Bruno de Montarville’s municipal council instituted a blanket ban on neonicotinoid pesticide use within its urban perimeter. St. Bruno’s move extends a March 6 edict from Quebec’s environment ministry banning the use of neonics on lawns and greenspaces within urban centres. In St. Bruno, neonics were already banned in certain sensitive zones and near schools and daycares. The Town hasn’t used pesticides on its public greenspaces for more than 25 years. 

St. Bruno mayor Martin Murray: « Tout comme nos citoyens, nous sommes préoccupés par le déclin des abeilles. Un tiers des aliments retrouvés dans nos assiettes dépend de leur travail de pollinisation. Ainsi, nous croyons qu’il est important d’interdire tout néonicotinoïde en milieu urbain. Cette mesure s’ajoute aux autres actions qui ont vu le jour à Saint-Bruno visant à protéger les colonies d’abeilles : les ruches urbaines au parc du Frère-Marcel-Alary, l’hôtel à insectes au parc Duquesne et l’intégration de fleurs et arbustes favorisant les pollinisateurs sur le territoire de la ville. »

In 2015, concern over declining honeybee populations prompted St. Bruno to mandate local honey producer Miel Larüche to instal four urban hives in parc Frère-Marcel-Alary. The hives each produce approximately 40 kilos of honey a year. The aim: to raise awareness among St. Bruno residents of the importance of pollinators to Quebec’s food supply and diversity. 

One reason why St. Bruno, like hundreds of other municipalities across Canada, isn’t likely to extend the ban to cover the entire municipality — Mount Bruno Country Club, a lovely old-school course nestled into Mount Bruno’s southern flank. Like all private golf courses in Quebec, Mount Bruno Country Club may or may not use neonicitinoid pesticides. Quebec’s pesticide laws don’t require that information to be made public.

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From The Guardian: a 2018 study shows why neonics are lethal to honeybees and other pollinating insects.

Neonicotinoid pesticides are prohibited throughout the European Union and in other countries as well as in several U.S. states because of a growing body of research-based concerns about harmful effects on mammals and birds. Because they are water-soluble and slow to degrade, there is growing concern that neonics used on arable land are percolating into the aquifer and concentrating there at growing levels, thereby building up in the food chain.

Quebec has led Canadian action on banning the domestic use of agricultural chemicals, thanks to fearless voices like Hudson’s late Dr. June Irwin (immortalized in documentary filmmaker Paul Tukey’s A Chemical Reaction). 

In 1998, the Town of Hudson was victorious in a 10-year legal struggle with the lawn-maintenance industry and their chemical-industry backers. The fight went to the Supreme Court where Justice Claire l’Heureux-Dubé’s majority-decision ruling evoked  the precautionary principle — do no harm. In practical terms, L’Heureux-Dubé’s ruling meant that unless the safety of a chemical can be established scientifically for a specific usage, the prudent course of action is to ban its use for that purpose. 

The anti-neonic campaign in Quebec peaked in December 2015, when Montreal banned all neonicotinoids – without exception – on all properties within the city limits, including the Botanical Garden, all agricultural areas and all golf courses, drawing pushback from the chemical industry and agribusiness. 

Since then, the industry has successfully lobbied a succession of governments for whom the environment isn’t as big an issue as it once was. Testing protocols were revised. Existing bans, such as that of 2,4-D, were reversed. Documentation became unavailable.

Under Quebec’s original pesticide regulations, golf courses were required to submit annual reports on pesticide use and make them available to municipalities as well as to the environment ministry. The aim was to encourage the industry to strive for year-over-year reductions in their use of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides in exchange for the privilege of continuing their unregulated use.

It hasn’t worked that way. There is anecdotal evidence that not only has the golf industry been unable to reduce its addiction to pesticide use, but climate change and golfers’ demand for perfect greens and fairways have pushed courses to use more herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. 

Worse, there appears to have been a change of heart at the federal and provincial levels when it comes to ensuring the licencing process is transparent and usage statistics are available to the public.   

As a private citizen, I set out in March to obtain information on golf course pesticide use in my community from the Environment and Fight against Climate Change ministry. It took me half a dozen calls to hit the wall. My answer from a regional environment ministry functionary in Longueuil: some documents are accessible to the public, others are not available, while others I would have to obtain from third parties — the end users themselves.

I pushed for an explanation why usage data once retrievable from the ministry’s own website is now either either unavailable or subject to an Access to Information request. I never got one. 

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Agronomist Louis Robert is well-known throughout Quebec for his expertise on soil and seedlings — and on the effects of agricultural chemicals. He was fired last year for revealing the role the pesticide industry plays in determining what agricultural chemicals are in use on farms throughout the province.

While I was chasing data on pesticide use, a bigger battle was raging. Louis Robert, a Quebec agronomist in the employ of the agriculture ministry, was fired last year for exposing private sector interference in government studies into pesticide use.

 With Robert now seeking election as the head of the provincial association of agronomists, the Legault caquistes are looking to control political fallout from the worst black eye they’ve suffered since being elected. The bureaucracy’s interpretation of that order has been to block or control the flow of information. Without accurate information about who is using what and in what amount, meaningful municipal pesticide discussion is impossible.

Robert continues his assault on the agricultural chemical lobby. Earlier this month, he alleged in a RadCan interview that Quebec farmers are the heaviest users of chemical fertilizers in North America — and as with pesticides, the private sector’s influence on public policy is the reason. 

Louise and I pushed our MP Peter Schiefke for the process behind the federal government’s re-approval of the popular herbicide glysophate (Roundup).  He told us the federal government had mandated an arms-length group of researchers to review scientific literature on glysophate to determine whether the science supporting its licencing was sound. They gave it their thumbs up. 

So, in the absence of proof to the contrary, we’ll assume glysophate is okay in Canada even though U.S. civil-damages juries have approved multimillion-dollar payouts to sick or dying golf industry employees and their families. So much for Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s precautionary principle.

There’s a part of me that sympathizes with the golf industry. I grew up caddying, then learning to play at Whitlock. Golf courses are Hudson’s biggest employers and I’m guessing it’s the same story in many residential municipalities. A 2016 Mount Bruno Country Club post seeking a golf course superintendent exemplifies the tightrope the industry has to walk (my boldface): 

—Providing agronomic direction to maintain the golf course at the highest level of playing conditions attainable in our climate.

— Following industry standards for the healthy growth of the golf course grasses, trees and other applicable plant materials.

—Developing and implementing programs for turfgrass, material and chemical maintenance and asset management.

Establishing good working relationships with regulatory bodies.

Golfers paying thousands or tens of thousands for membership want perfection. That means emerald-green fairways and flawless greens. If they don’t find their Eden, they’ll walk and take their monthly meal tab to a course able to maintain a higher standard. Why risk losing members to a no-pesticides policy? Stick to industry standards, keep the bureaucrats happy and nobody gets hurt.

Nobody, unless one believes the outliers who believe intensive use of agricultural chemicals on golf courses pose a serious risk to employees, players — and maybe to the municipalities they’re located in.

Environmental filmmaker Andrew Nisker’s 2017 documentary Dad and the Dandelions (The Nature of Things, CBC) questions whether his father’s exposure to pesticides might have led to the non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma that took him — and sickened other golf course employees he spoke with. One of the doctors Nisker interviews practices in Collingwood, a rural community on Georgian Bay. He’s seeing the same cancers and other illnesses among golfers as he sees in his farmers— and both cohorts top the provincial risk list.

Nisker visits two pesticide-free courses, one in Martha’s Vineyard, the other in St. Andrew’s, Scotland. The Martha’s Vineyard course depends on the right blend of indigenous grasses and traditional remedies like dish soap and white vinegar. St. Andrew’s has daisies and the occasional cow pie. 

The best line is the response to Nisker’s question to the Old Course’s retired groundkeeper: what would be the reaction of players if the Old Course was transported to North America. 

Fire the groundkeeper!

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Concrete barriers at the entrance to St. Bruno’s parc du Frère-Marcel-Alary.

Quebec’s latest rules regarding neonics:

Municipalities:

— As of March 8 2019, ban the retail sale and professional application of neonics for use on grass in urban areas — except on golf courses.  

— Permits the retail sale of biopesticides and synthetic pyrethrins, now classed as Group 5 pesticides posing little risk;

— Places further controls on the sale of mixed pesticides for domestic use;

— Permits the injection of pesticides to control Emerald Ash Borer near daycares and schools.

— Permits the domestic use of pesticides containing D-phenothrine and tetramethrine against wasps, hornets and bees near daycares and schools.

Agriculture: 

— Neonics, long used to coat seeds so they don’t get eaten by pests before they sprout, are approved for use on oats, barley, wheat, soybeans, canola, feed, seed and table corn — but are subject to stricter storage and usage controls.

— Neonic retail sales will be subject to a tighter permit system to ensure they are not sold for cosmetic use. For example, retail transactions will now require signed authorization from a licenced agronomist. 

— Existing regulations regarding wetland and watercourse protection and overspray prevention will be applied with greater rigour. 

— Farmers must keep registers of neonic usage; wholesalers must declare annual sales.

Industry: 

— Permits will now be required for fumigation with sulfuryl fluoride, magnesium phosphate;

— Railways and other transport corridors will no longer be required to remit the Ministry a report on pesicide application;

— All commercial pesticide purchases, sales and applications must be recorded on forms for that purpose; the registry no longer wants to see invoices or purchase orders.

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