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Canola, chemicals and bees: Why Canadian farmers are fighting a proposed pesticide ban

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Health Canada is following in the European Union’s footsteps as it moves to ban the use of neonic pesticides due to concerns about their impact on bees and other wildlife. But many farmers are fighting to maintain the status quo.

Canola growers, in particular, say the ban would increase costs and put their crops at risk of being lost to flea beetles. They say other types of pesticides are not as effective and therefore require higher volumes to be applied to crops.

“The alternatives are worse — worse for the environment, worse for farmers who are applying it, and just substandard in every way,” said Renn Breitkreuz, chairman of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission.

Scientific research has shown neonicotinoids, commonly known as neonics, are harmful to a variety of aquatic life and insects, such as bees, which is why the EU banned the outdoor use of the pesticides last April.

In August, Health Canada proposed a ban on neonics that would phase out the chemicals in the next three to five years.

When Health Canada asked for public feedback in the fall, canola farmers obliged with letters detailing their concerns. 

Farmers coat seeds with neonics before they are planted. The chemical protects the canola crop from pests as the plants begin to grow.

“To be blunt, we’re puzzled why they would want to remove these products from our toolkit,” said Breitkreuz, who farms near Onoway, Alta., about 50 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Breitkreuz said neonics are safe for farmers to handle, have little impact on the environment and are very effective in controlling pests.

Renn Breitkreuz, chair of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, says it’s a ‘no-brainer’ to allow the use of neonics. (CBC)

Farmers are concerned about the research Health Canada relied on to make its decision. They say the science included faulty assumptions and relied on small sample sizes. As a result, some farmers in Western Canada are collecting their own water-monitoring data to submit to the federal government.

Rick White, chief executive of the Canadian Canola Growers Association, says the issue is important because neonics are “a very efficient, effective and targeted way of dealing with pests, which can wipe out an entire canola crop in just a number of days.”

However, the EU decided neonics do more harm than good.

The EU began restricting use of the pesticides in 2013 because scientific studies had long linked them to the decline of bees and other pollinators. In 2018, the EU voted for a ban on all outdoor use and to only permit application in sealed greenhouses.

Last year, more than 240 scientists from Canada and around the world signed an open letter calling for restrictions on neonics.

Scientific studies have shown neonics damage the ability of a variety of bees to reproduce.

‘Solid research’

Some of the research was conducted by Amro Zayed, a biologist at York University in Toronto. His team carried out a long-term study examining colonies located near and far away from cornfields. They observed negative effects on the colonies that came in contact with the pesticide, including queen and worker honeybees with shorter life spans.

“From my perspective, we’ve done really solid research on this,” Zayed said. “We clearly demonstrated that in Ontario and Quebec, exposure to these chemicals has negative consequences on bee health.”

Scientists have welcomed Health Canada’s proposed ban because of their serious concerns about the harmful effects of neonics on bees, butterflies and aquatic organisms. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Studies have also linked neonics to death and reproductive problems in birds and wild turkeys.

Canola farmers say their use of neonics has a smaller impact on the environment than other pesticides because the seeds are injected into the ground, so the pesticide is less likely to spread in the air.

Middle ground?

Instead of a ban, Rick White of the Canadian Canola Growers Association said it’s possible Health Canada and farmers could find some middle ground and agree on a mitigation strategy, with directions for how and where neonics can be used to treat seeds.

“There may be ways to minimize the problem, if there is a problem,” he said.

Health Canada declined CBC’s interview request. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said a final decision about the proposed ban will come later this year.

“We have completed the scientific review work related to pollinators and anticipate publishing the results of the review and decision in spring 2019,” said Geoffroy Legault-Thivierge.

Additional data and stakeholder feedback on the protection of aquatic insects is also being reviewed by Health Canada.

In 2015, the Ontario government put some restrictions on the use of neonics.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found neonics offer no yield benefits to soy crops typically treated with the chemicals.



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Chill out: Wolves take snow days too, says study

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When snow falls, wolves chill out, according to a recent study from the University of Alberta.

Over two winters, researchers looked at the movements of grey wolves near Fort McMurray, Alta. in conjunction with data on snowfall in the area.

“We found that on the night that it was snowing, wolves rested more than they travelled, and when they travelled, they travelled slower than on other days when there wasn’t any snowfall,” Amanda Droghini, a former master’s student with the biology department. 

The researchers also found that within a day of the snowfall, the wolves returned to their normal movement behaviours. They don’t know exactly why the wolves changed their movements, but they have some theories.

“We think that it might be something about actively falling snow,” said Droghini.

Snow, like rain, clears the air of scent molecules, she said. Wolves rely heavily on their sense of smell to hunt, especially at night. Most of the wolves studied do their hunting after dark.

Another possible explanation, said Droghini, is that the wolves’ prey move less in falling snow.

“We unfortunately don’t have the data to test this,” she said, but if other animals are hunkered down, waiting for the snow to stop, there is no incentive for the wolves to go out hunting.

In their study, researchers used cameras and data transmitted from collars on 17 wolves. (Submitted by Amanda Droghini)

The researchers used data from remote cameras that monitored snowfalls, and collars on 17 wolves. These wolves were also part of a separate study that looked at the movement of wolves and moose near Fort McMurray.

It’s hard to say right now how climate change might affect the behaviour of wolves in snow, said Droghini.

Information about snow conditions is scarce, particularly in the North where there aren’t many weather stations.

Droghini said more freeze and thaw cycles could make movement difficult for animals in winter.

Rain after snow can create an icy crust over the snowpack, and this kind of snow is the most challenging for animals to walk through, she said.

“It costs them a lot of energy.”

The concern, said Droghini, is that it might be more difficult for animals to maintain the energy levels they need for the reproductive season.



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Trump says U.S. will develop space-based missile defence

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Moving to protect the U.S. from advanced missile threats from China and Russia, President Donald Trump on Thursday laid out plans for a new array of space-based sensors and other high-tech systems designed to more quickly detect and defeat attacks.

Trump, in a speech at the Pentagon, declared that space is the new warfighting domain. And he vowed that the U.S. will develop an unrivaled missile defence system to protect against advanced hypersonic and cruise missile threats from competitors and adversaries.

“Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” Trump said. “In a time of rapidly evolving threats, we must be certain that our defensive capabilities are unrivaled and unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Trump did not mention Russia, China or North Korea in his roughly 20-minute speech. But the Pentagon’s new strategy makes clear that its plan for a more aggressive space-based missile defence system is aimed at protecting against existing threats from North Korea and Iran and countering advanced weapon systems being developed by Russia and China.

The new review is the first since 2010, and it concludes that to adequately protect America, the Pentagon must expand defence technologies in space and use those systems to more quickly detect, track and ultimately defeat incoming missiles.

Acting Defence Secretary Pat Shanahan, who also spoke, said the new hypersonic missiles being developed by nations such as Russia and China are harder to see, harder to track and harder to defeat.

To address that, the U.S. is looking at putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles when they are launched. The U.S. sees space as a critical area for advanced, next-generation capabilities to stay ahead of the threats.

The administration also plans to study the idea of basing interceptors in space, so the U.S. can strike incoming enemy missiles during the first minutes of flight when the booster engines are still burning.

20 times faster than sound

Russia and China have made clear their efforts to develop the high-tech programs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled new strategic weapons he claims can’t be intercepted. One is a hypersonic glide vehicle, which could fly 20 times faster than the speed of sound and make sharp manoeuvres to avoid being detected by missile defence systems.

Missile defence officials on Thursday declined to provide any budget estimates or timelines for the programs.

Michael Griffin, the defence undersecretary for research and engineering, told Pentagon reporters that developing a new layered network of sensors in space is key to being able to detect a fast-moving hypersonic missile in its early, more vulnerable stages.

The Pentagon, he said, will study the issue to determine how many would be needed, and at what orbit they would fly. He said the program is affordable and some funding for that would be in the budget that will be proposed for 2020. The system could be operational in the late 2020s.

Officials said the study on space-based interceptors could begin in the coming months. But, recognizing the potential concerns surrounding any perceived weaponization of space, officials emphasized that no testing is mandated, and no final decisions have been made.

The Trump administration is considering ways to expand U.S. homeland and overseas defences against potential missile attacks, possibly adding a layer of satellites in space to detect and track hostile targets. (Mark Wright/Missile Defense Agency via Associated Press)

‘Ineffective, costly, and dangerous’

Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, immediately raised concerns, calling the plan a bad Star Wars sequel.

“While it is true that the missile threat environment America now faces is different, the answer is not to build a wall in space,” Markey said. Adding that Trump’s “misguided rush to weaponize space would be as ineffective, costly, and dangerous as it was more than three decades ago when it was soundly rejected.”

During his Pentagon appearance, Trump also pressed his case to build a wall on the southern border and expressed his condolences on the deaths of four Americans in Syria on Wednesday.

Any expansion of the scope and cost of missile defences would compete with other defence priorities, including the billions of extra dollars the Trump administration has committed to spending on a new generation of nuclear weapons. An expansion also would have important implications for American diplomacy, given long-standing Russian hostility to even the most rudimentary U.S. missile defences and China’s worry that longer-range U.S. missile defences in Asia could undermine Chinese national security.

While the U.S. continues to pursue peace with North Korea, Pyongyang has made threats of nuclear missile attacks against the U.S. and its allies in the past and has worked to improve its ballistic missile technology. It is still considered a serious threat to America. Iran, meanwhile, has continued to develop more sophisticated ballistic missiles, increasing their numbers and their capabilities.



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Zimbabwe in ‘total internet shutdown’ amid violent crackdown

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Zimbabwe on Friday went into “total internet shutdown,” a media group said, after a days-long violent crackdown on people protesting a dramatic fuel price increase.

Badly injured people streamed into a hospital in the capital after alleged assaults by security forces.

“Our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history,” the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in a sweeping statement lamenting the government’s “intolerant handling of dissent” and its failure to halt economic collapse.

Media group MISA-Zimbabwe shared a text message from the country’s largest telecom company, Econet, calling the government’s internet order “beyond our reasonable control.” The High Court will hear a challenge to the shutdown on Monday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said.

A prominent pastor and activist who faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge arrived at court, one of more than 600 people arrested this week. Evan Mawarire has called it “heartbreaking” to see the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa acting like that of former leader Robert Mugabe.

‘It’s a shame what’s happening’

Mawarire is accused of inciting civil disobedience online. “It’s a shame what’s happening,” the pastor said. A magistrate said there was reasonable suspicion he had committed an offence and set a Jan. 31 hearing, while Mawarire remains in detention until his lawyer on Monday can seek bail.

International calls for restraint by Zimbabwe’s security forces are growing, while Mnangagwa prepares to plead for more investment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He announced the fuel price increase on the eve of his overseas trip, leaving hardline former military commander and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga as acting president.

Zimbabwe cleric and activist Evan Mawarire speaks to the media as he arrives at court Thursday, accused of inciting violence through social media. (Jekesai Nijikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

Gasoline in the economically shattered country is now the world’s most expensive. Zimbabweans heeded a nationwide stay-at-home call earlier this week in protest. Rights groups and others have accused security forces of targeting activists and labour leaders in response, with the United States expressing alarm.

The UN human rights office on Friday urged Zimbabwe to stop the crackdown, noting reports of intimidating door-to-door searches by security forces.

68 cases of gunshot wounds

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has said it had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and 100-plus other cases of “assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks” and more.

Injured people streamed into a private hospital in the capital, Harare, on Thursday. Some had broken legs. A nurse attended to a man with a broken spine.

Albert Taurai told The Associated Press he had ventured out to look for bread when plainclothes officers wearing masks beat him up, accusing him of barricading roads.

Keith Frymore, a 21-year-old security guard, had a torn lip. He told the AP a group of uniformed soldiers attacked him at work.

Shops running out of bread

“I need $70 to get help here. I don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

Other hungry Harare residents who ventured out seeking food have reported being tear-gassed by police. Soldiers were still controlling long fuel lines in the capital on Friday, and many wary residents stayed at home.

A man stands in a shop after failing to find bread in Harare on Friday. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

Zimbabweans had briefly rejoiced when Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe, who was forced out in late 2017, thinking the new president would deliver on his refrain that the country “is open for business.” But frustration has risen over the lack of improvement in the collapsed economy, which doesn’t even have a currency of its own.

The internet shutdown cuts off crucial access to the mobile money that Zimbabwe’s government uses to pay teachers and other public workers. Some said they can no longer afford fares for public transport, and some shops have run out of basics such as bread.

Demonstrations are ‘terrorism,’ government says

Death tolls in this week’s unrest have varied. Eight people were killed when police and military fired on crowds, Amnesty International said. Zimbabwe’s government said three people were killed, including a policeman stoned to death by an angry crowd.

The demonstrations amount to “terrorism,” Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said, blaming the opposition. State Security Minister Owen Ncube thanked security forces for “standing firm.”

President Emmerson Mnangagwa replaced Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for decades. (Natalia Fedosenko/TASS News Agency/Associated Press)

But among those arrested are several ruling ZANU-PF party community leaders as well as a soldier and a police officer.

The U.K.’s minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, has summoned Zimbabwe’s ambassador to discuss “disturbing reports of use of live ammunition, intimidation and excessive force” against protesters.

The European Union, in a statement late Thursday, noted the “disproportionate use of force by security personnel” and urged that internet service be restored.

Canada updated its travel advisory for the country on Thursday, warning access to food and fuel is limited, and an increased police presence should be expected in all major urban centres.



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