What does “science based” mean? For both government policy and industry best practice, science based should mean that practices are based on rigorous scientific studies. Policies and regulations that veer off the science-based path put at risk the tools that make modern agriculture possible. So do production practices that do not rigorously follow scientifically developed guidelines.
But scientific review can sometimes be messy. Scientific consensus can shift and the “right” answer can change over time as new information becomes available. New research can disprove past points of view that were once thought to be valid.
What does this mean for policy-makers and the development of industry best management practices? Practically, this means that both industry and government must be willing to adjust practices and policies when new evidence comes to light.
For example, frequent summerfallow was once the common practice on the North American prairies. This practice has adjusted as new research and agriculture tools became available. The willingness of farmers to adapt has benefited the environment and improved economic returns.
There are also several policy examples. Some provinces have enacted legislation and regulations that limit the use of crop protection products. The most recent instance was the move by the Ontario government to limit the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments. Unfortunately, this was not a science-based decision.
These regulations put Ontario farmers at a competitive disadvantage. The provincial limitation on the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments will increase the cost of production in Ontario as alternative pest control products are more expensive to apply. Alternatives are less effective, impacting Ontario yield potential. Policy-makers knew these costs, but proceeded anyways because some believed the new regulations would protect bee populations.
Early in January, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), together with the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., released research showing no potential risk to bees as a result of on-label use of these seed treatments. Further, PMRA scientists demonstrated that the treatments generated significant advantages for farmers. The right response to this new evidence would be for the Government of Ontario to reverse course and repeal the regulatory restrictions.
Failure to follow the results of the PMRA’s research and continue with opinion-based regulations will hurt farmers. Failing to reverse course could also undermine Canada’s regulatory system, which if it occurs, would cause long-term damage to Canadian agriculture and the economy as a whole.
“Science based” applies to more than just government policy. This is also the basic foundation of best management practices on the farm. Pesticide labels provide a good example of the importance of this foundation. The PMRA is responsible for the development of the labels on pesticides licensed for use in Canada. These labels are based on extensive scientific analysis and we rely on this research to ensure that farm inputs do not have a negative impact on human health or the environment.
Best practices require a good understanding of the labels on every product used on the farm. Rigorous adherence to science-based labels protect farmers and modern agriculture in general. By sticking to the label guidelines farmers help preserve public trust in the science-based regulatory system.
“Public trust” is the most important tool we have in avoiding a descent into opinion-based regulations. Regulations based on the latest trend on the Internet will result in more unpredictable restrictions that stifle innovation and ultimately strangle modern agriculture.
Following the labels developed through the PMRA’s process also protects our ability to access both domestic and international markets. Our customers have confidence that grain produced in Canada is safe because of the system under which it is produced. If some were to choose not to follow pesticide labels the risk increases that Canadian exports will contain residues that exceed allowable and safe limits, which will put shipments in jeopardy. Our reputation can only be protected if producers adhere to the same science-based approach we expect from our governments.
Canada’s science-based regulatory system is the envy of much of the world. The science-based approach has allowed and fostered the development of modern agriculture practices. Because of our science-based production system, international customers have strong confidence in the safety of Canadian grains, oilseeds and special crops. This confidence contributes to our brand strength on the world stage. It is incumbent that governments and industry alike work to ensure these benefits are preserved.
Cam Dahl is president of Cereals Canada