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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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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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DFO tries to allay fishermen’s fears that protected area would impact livelihood

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The two-lane highway along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is dotted with dozens of signs declaring “No Marine Protected Area Here!”

It’s a sign, literally, of organized opposition to a proposed 2,000-square-kilometre marine protected area.

The Eastern Shore Islands area is the first coastal candidate in Canada with an active inshore commercial fishery, albeit a small one with just 150 lobster fishermen. Still, they are a mainstay of the local economy and leading the opposition.

The fishermen fear a marine protected area, or MPA, would automatically lead to so-called no-take zones, barring industrial activities like harvesting.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is moving to put those fears at rest.

“We will not be making a recommendation for there to be a zone of high protection within the MPA,” said Wendy Williams, director of DFO Maritimes Oceans Management.

A “No Marine Protected Area Here!” sign is seen along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. (Robert Short/CBC)

Last week, the department presented the results of a draft risk assessment to an advisory committee established to recommend what should or should not be allowed inside Eastern Shore Islands.

The committee was created after the department declared the unspoiled archipelago of hundreds of islands an area of interest. It is the first step on the road to designation as a marine protected area under the federal Oceans Act.

The risk assessment concluded the lobster fishery would not harm the kelp beds, eel grass and cod nursery the federal government wants to protect.

“The predominant activity that takes place there is the lobster fishery. It’s a low-impact fishery. It only operates two months a year, so we feel it’s not necessary to have a no-take,” Williams said in an interview.

“We talked to the advisory committee about that and what we heard and unanimously around the table is that they felt the same way. So in our design going forward we will not be incorporating a no-take zone.”

Fishermen seek assurances

But fisherman Peter Connors is not declaring victory.

“You have to remember this is deathbed conversion,” he said.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area.

He does not trust DFO and is seeking some sort of legally binding commitment from federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson honouring Williams’s promise.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Peter Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area. (Robert Short/CBC)

“I want to know the mechanism that he’s going to use and just how he intends to secure that for future generations,” said Connors. “I don’t want a trust me proposition and I don’t want a temporary reprieve … just because they are facing a lot of opposition now.”

Connors acknowledged a marine protected area on the Eastern Shore could help “Canada’s brand” from a marketing perspective. The country has committed to protecting 10 per cent of its ocean by 2020.

‘Give and take’

Environmentalists have watched in frustration as opposition to Eastern Shore Islands galvanized over the prospect of no-take zones.

Susanna Fuller, senior projects manager for conservation organization Oceans North, urged DFO to eliminate no-take zones from the discussion last year.

“Since it has been such an issue of contention, we are hoping that this gives the community and the fishermen a sense that they are being heard,” said Fuller.

“For this process to go forward there needs to be some give and take.”

While DFO has decided to allow unrestricted lobster fishing inside Eastern Shore Islands, Williams said no precedent has been set.

“Every MPA is different. If people have their expectations raised in any particular way because of what we’re looking at now for this MPA, they really shouldn’t. Everything is unique and we need to look at it that way,” she said.

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