Thursday, February 18, 2016

Time to reform Canada’s pesticides management rules

Published in

Bees and other pollinators are central to how our food is produced. Over one third of our diet comes directly or indirectly from insect-pollinated plants.
Hamilton Spectator
By Maggie MacDonald

For too long, the federal government has allowed unsafe pesticides to stay on the market — a reality confirmed by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in her recently released report.

Her research shows just how badly the federal government has neglected to protect human health and the environment from pesticides. Now it's time for the new government to take action and reform Canada's pesticides management.

At the core of the issue is Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) and its failure to fulfil its statutory objective of preventing "unacceptable risks" from the unsafe use of pesticides.

The federal agency's signature failing is the practice of "conditional registration," which allows companies to register pesticides for agricultural use without submitting data on safety and environmental impacts — on the condition that the data would be provided at a later date. We know that for some pesticides, companies never did provide the required evidence. Instead, they were allowed to simply renew conditional registrations again and again.

Equally problematic are unconscionable delays in the cancellation of registrations for pesticides that have been shown to have unacceptable risks — in some cases delays that took up to 11 years.

The federal government's failure to act is especially disconcerting given that pesticide use is increasing. According to Statistics Canada, the area of farmland treated with herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides increased by 3 per cent, 42 per cent, and 114 per cent, respectively, between 2001 and 2011. Larger and larger parts of Canada's agricultural areas are treated with more and more pesticides, creating risks for wildlife, soil, water and ultimately human health, including cancer in humans.

In 2015, I testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health on the need to end repeated conditional registrations of pesticides, which kept neonics and other pesticides on the market for many years without adequate safety data. Last week Health Canada announced a plan to end conditional registrations, which is a step in the right direction.

But more needs to be done to prevent further harm to the health of Canadians and the environment from exposure to pesticides and other noxious substances that remain in use long after scientists confirm that they are toxic.

A case in point is neonic pesticides. This class of pesticides plays a major role in bee die-offs, which threatens Canada's food security. And it's not just honeybees; in Canada alone there are over 800 species of bees that are also at risk. We know that neonics are just one stressor for pollinators; others include climate change, disease, and habitat loss. But we also know that we can't tackle the decline of pollinators without addressing the use of neonic pesticides.

Together with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Canada's PMRA is re-evaluating the risks neonics pose to pollinators. While key assessments will only be published later this year, it's clear that the federal government has to take action to reduce the use of neonics — just like Ontario already did last year.

Bees and other pollinators are central to how our food is produced. Over one third of our diet comes directly or indirectly from insect-pollinated plants. Managed and wild pollinators contribute almost $1 billion annually to Ontario's economy alone. Ontario's new mandatory regulation that will reduce neonic use by 80 per cent by 2017 is setting a benchmark in Canada and indeed North America.

Now we need the federal government do its part to protect pollinators across the country. Ending the short-sighted practice of granting conditional registrations is a step in the right direction, but this week's report by the Environment Commissioner has shown that a larger overhaul of Canada's pesticide management regime is needed.

Maggie MacDonald is Toxics Program Manager at Environmental Defence