Last week Ontario’s environment minister and the province’s commissioner of the environment both made the same statement regarding neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of insecticides in the world. Glen Murray and Gord Miller said neonics are a greater threat to Canada’s ecosystem than DDT.
Their quotes prompted a slew of instantaneous media reports with predictable comments from environmental groups, agreeing that neonics are killing bees, poisoning wetlands and killing millions of birds across the country.
Neonics, which are applied as a seed treatment to almost all of the corn and canola in North America and most of the soybeans, have been linked to bee colony losses across U.S. and Canada. In September beekeepers in Ontario filed a $450 million class action suit against neonicotinoid manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer, claiming production losses dating back to 2006.
University of Saskatchewan research suggests neonics are present at detectable levels in sloughs and wetlands in Western Canada. The neonics are possibly killing insects that come in contact with the water. A lack of insects reduces the food supply for birds that rely on the insects.
Very few, if any, Canadian toxicologists and environmental scientists responded to Miller and Murray’s DDT comments. Which is odd, because there is scant scientific data backing the idea that neonics are a threat to water quality and the wider ecosystem.
Scientists at several Canadian universities, who spoke off the record, explained why they are silent on this issue.
A highly regarded toxicologist said the environmental risks surrounding neonicotinoids are “overstated”. Data indicates that neonics are present in wetlands and other water bodies. But the concentrations are in the parts per trillion, which is essentially nothing.
The true “believers and zealots” hype the neonic risk and use “their research to make an issue where none exists, or make it larger to garner press for the ego and funds for the lab,” a scientist said.
Still, the scientist and others are reluctant to speak up because if they say neonics are safe, fellow researchers and environmental groups launch a venomous assault to destroy their reputation. The neonic issue has become a witch hunt, where anyone who claims pesticides are safe must be burned on a stake.
An environmental scientist said this case is unusual because the attackers are often academics. Research with contrary results and divergent opinion is a normal part of science. But the neonic haters like to send nasty emails and publicly condemn anyone who disagrees with their viewpoint.
The academic environment has become so toxic it’s now difficult to publish papers suggesting neonics don’t kill bees or birds.
A researcher said it’s challenging to find paper reviewers who are neutral on neonics. The majority of reviewers are hostile to insecticide seed treatments, so research showing neonics are safe is highly scrutinized and publication can be delayed. Meanwhile, papers concluding insecticidal seed treatments are killing every bee in Canada are published with minimal vetting.
An entomologist said journalists are not interested in presenting both sides of the issue. Media reports highlight the virtues of the Sierra Club and other groups standing up for the environment. When defenders of seed treatments appear on television, radio or online, journalists portray them as “Darth Vader” or agents of evil, he said.
The media reports and the academic chill, assuming there is one, possibly explains the results of a public opinion poll earlier this year. Approximately 87 percent of Ontarians are concerned that neonics are threatening bees and wildlife.
The Ontario government is considering restricting the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments and an outright ban remains a possibility.
No one, including entomologists and environmental scientists, likes having their head chopped off when they dare to speak. But scientists possess the most knowledge and credibility when it comes to insecticides, bees and the wider environment.
It’s been said 10,000 times at Canadian agricultural conferences: the science has to dictate public policy and production practices.
But that maxim is a non-starter, for all of agriculture, if Canadian scientists aren’t willing to speak up.