Walking Out on the Commons

Posted by Alex Fletcher on January 2, 2015

Photo by Lisa Lundgard
By Nathan Carey.

On Thursday December 18th I was given the honour of representing the NFU at the Ontario Pollinator Health Plan’s Agricultural Stakeholders meeting.  Unlike the other scheduled meetings, three in-person and the two online, this one was specifically for farmers and the agricultural industry.  The Ontario government was seeking specific information about how to implement their strategy to reduce neonicotinoid (NNI) pesticides by 80% in a way that would work for farmers across the province.  What transpired at this meeting has left me feeling angry, disappointed and firmly committed to the values and analysis of the NFU.

The major movement of the day was that the Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) and its ‘partners’, including CropLife Canada and the Canadian Seed Trade Association, voiced their unabashed, firm rejection of the proposal and walked out.  The question I have is why would these groups be reacting to this proposal in such a divisive and defensive manner?  It’s as if this proposal is the falling acorn that begins the story of Chicken Little.  If you read the GFO’s stated reasons for their position and when phrases like “end of family farming” are invoked I don’t think it’s hard to hear, “The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!”  The NFU is no stranger to making dire predictions on controversial topics but I would suggest that our analysis is transparent and based on a substantial weight of evidence. 

My read of the walk-out by GFO and its industry partners is that they are not happy that a government is regulating in the public interest and invoking the precautionary principal.  The precautionary principal is what the NFU recommends as the best approach to regulate agrochemicals and new technologies like genetically modified(GM) crops.  The GFO and their industry partners are quick to brand this philosophy as “fear based.”  This ‘fear’ presumably comes from their perceived ‘lack of science’ on the matter. 

I say this because the majority of science around neonics and pollinator losses/biodiversity loss is very clear:  neonics are a major factor.  Not the only factor but a big one.  We don't have a clear causal link but we have a strong and multi-factorial correlation.  Further, in terms of improving pollinator health (and general ecosystem health) neonics are one factor that we can have an immediate and profound impact on.  On top of that, many sources of information, including rigorous studies out of Italy where there has been a five-year ban on neonic seed treatments on corn, show there is little to no yield effect.  Any groups that say these regulations are not based on science are using the word 'science' as a rhetorical hot potato that they lobb when their frame of reference is challenged.  It is my view that the framing of the issue by the GFO and the agri-businsses lobby is very narrow.

What I observe is that in this case there was a departure from the status quo; groups like CropLife were not able to sit-in with regulators behind closed doors or provide model legislation during the drafting of the regulatory proposal. For examples of this kind of influence by industry on policy making please follow these links about: Ted Menzies, former MP and now CropLife head, Bill C-18, RR Alfalfaand the conditional licensing of neonicotinoids.  Unlike in those examples, the consultation taking place in Ontario on the Pollinator Health proposal is a true democratic process - it is taking place for the public good in the public eye.  Some agriculture industry playersmay not be used to this.  I feel their voice is in fact being weighted fairly and appropriately, for a change.  I remind any Ontario readers who are GFO members that district meetings are coming up where you can voice your concerns. 

Our reactions, responses and positions are choices based on our values and goals.  The GFO and its partners have made clear choices about how they will or will not engage in a democratic public process.  They have also chosen which science they will value and which they will not.  These choices reveal the underlying values and goals they are based upon.  Are these values compatible with a safe and equitable future food system?

In my opinion the culture of agriculture has been deeply tied to corporate culture for several decades.  This leads to a narrowing of what is considered possible and what is impossible.  It leads to a certain set of narrow goals that are pursued with great creativity, intelligence and cost.  As time has passed the costs and rationale of attaining those goals have become too steep for society to bear.  This current move by the Ontario government to affirm the precautionary principal and to strengthen IPM are great steps in re-orienting the goals of agriculture back to the common good.  IPM must be funded and enacted for the public good.  It is too easy for this tool to be distorted by the same values and goals that have led us to this crisis point.

Grain farmers as individuals have real fears about income loss resulting from regulating NNIs.  It’s easy for me to look at the science and say,”no worries, neonics have almost no effect on yield.”  It’s a different reality to be on the front lines of potential crop losses with increasing debt loads, increasing input costs and shrinking market power.  A simple solution is to promise to pay farmers for any losses they incur as a result of not having NNIs to use.  If the farmers feel the government is moving too fast then this seems like a fair response back from the government:  "We won't slow down but we'll take care of you if something goes wrong."  In the final analysis neonics are here because of approvals from the Federal government’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) and the risk-based assessment model that large agricultural industry players vociferously support. 

All of this hoopla is in relation to one chemical tool in the toolbox of grain farmers.  A tool that is designed to kill insect pests.  While I may not be a grain farmer I do have enough understanding of systems and ecosystem function to know that when cropping systems are seated inside natural systems as grain farming certainly is then you have to play by nature's rules.  Pests that live in natural systems respond to natural stimuli like short rotation cycles, monocultures, lack of predation due to lack of biodiversity, poor plant health due to poor soil health, etc.  Modern chemical dependent agriculture systems are designed to deal with symptoms and not causes.  These systems will always be trapped with a set of worst options because the systems are not optimized for health.  There is always another ‘innovation’ to deal with the next crisis because that is what the system is designed to create and react to.  

In the long run though nothing will change- vis-a-vis toxic agrochemicals and their negative outcomes - unless governments also take this opportunity to enshrine and support non-chemical techniques as part of IPM in these regulations.  It is critical at this time that non-chemical techniques are highlighted and championed as a cost effective and efficacious response to pest pressure.  Start with soil health: physical, chemical and biological.

This is a moment in time where society can open up the goals and framing of agriculture and our food system.  Organic and ecological cropping systems are healthy by design.  The way modern agriculture uses chemicals is the same way as a hammer searching for nails.  Chemicals have an important place in agriculture but they should be used as a measure of last resort, in acute situations never prophylacticly.  It's time to broaden our understanding about what is possible.

Please write to the Ontario Government before January 25, 2015 and voice your support for their pollinator health plan.  If you are not an Ontario resident your concerns are important here too!  It’s likely that this legislation will be modeled by other jurisdictions in the future.  Send your comments to: pollinatorhealth@ontario.ca or by mail to: The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs | Policy Division | Food Safety and Envrionmental Policy Branch | 1 Stone Road West | Floor 2 | Guelph Ontario | N1G 4Y2

Nathan Carey is a Director of the NFU Grey County Local 344 in Ontario.  He runs a 50 acre diversified vegetable and pasture based operation with his wife focusing on ecological production and direct marketing.