Editor’s Take: Crop protection under fire

It’s shaping up to be a tough year on the crop-protection front.

I don’t mean pests, diseases and weeds. For any producer, those are perennial challenges that will wax and wane with weather and pest pressure.

I speak instead of the regulatory and legal fronts, where as you will read in our May 27 issue, key products for Canadian farmers are under attack.

In our crops section front, AgCanada.com’s Dave Bedard delves into a regulatory revision for one popular neonicotinoid pesticide, imacloprid, that will essentially eliminate its use for several purposes, including seed treatment for field corn and in-furrow applications for potatoes. Vegetable and horticulture producers are even harder-hit, losing it for several key applications.

It’s better than the outright ban that several environmental groups had been hoping for, but it’s still a sharp setback, and worryingly, could raise public expectations for similar action against other products.

In a joint response to the Health Canada decision, a number of these groups protested the regulator hadn’t gone nearly far enough and had ignored data from another arm of the federal government.

“Five years ago, PMRA’s assessment showed imidacloprid posed unacceptable risks to aquatic insects based on water monitoring data from Environment and Climate Change Canada. So what happened to make them acceptable today?”, they enquired.

And down in the U.S., another black eye hit the crop-protection sector in the form of a recommendation from a U.S. judge who, as part of a $2 billion settlement to resolve future claims that Roundup causes cancer, told Bayer it should put a voluntary warning label on the product.

“For years I’ve been wondering why Monsanto wouldn’t do that voluntarily to protect itself,” said U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria.

Bayer had recently fought tooth and nail to overturn an attempt by California to slap a cancer warning label on the product, so such a voluntary move is unlikely.

But that didn’t deter Chhabria, who said a label would prevent lawsuits going forward and could free up money that could be used to create a better settlement offer for people already exposed, Reuters reported.

Clearly, the ground is shifting for crop-protection products. Already under the microscope, they’re facing legal tests that are more often finding liability and a growing desire from the public and environmental groups to further curtail their use.

That’s going to mean even more scrutiny in the coming years, and an even greater need to practise appropriate stewardship while using these products.

One good place to start would be the old idea of the economic threshold. In a year with high prices, it’s tempting to make ‘insurance’ applications that will protect those valuable bushels, and in the short term, it makes economic, if not environmental, sense. A few dollars in chemical can protect a lot of dollars in yield.

But when it comes to stewardship, short-term thinking is the enemy of progress. One must view things over the longer timeline, and consider the compounding costs.

The science does support some of the environmentalists’ concerns. Regulatory agencies have been willing, so far, to support the continued use of certain products — provided they are used as directed. That’s an important caveat for farmers to consider when making decisions about how and when they apply them.

Most farmers do take their environmental responsibilities seriously, but there’s another component they should take even more seriously. In their case, stewardship also means doing everything they can to ensure they still have access to the products that work for them.

That’s going to mean it’s important to take a two-pronged approach to reaching that goal.

Through their associations and value-chain groups, they’re going to have to collectively insist on rigorous scientific standards for making decisions about products. But that’s a double-edged sword that will require them to accept when the science goes against them.

Individually, on their farms, farmers will need to take the steps to ensure they’re following the rules and using the products only where necessary. That means adhering to the grain sector’s “Keep it Clean” campaign and always having stewardship in mind.

This is one way of securing the sector’s voice as a credible one when costs and benefits of these products are evaluated.

It’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that we have an affordable supply of safe and nutritious food that’s been produced sustainably. Farmers have a key role to play.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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