By Ann Slater
In a report published in 2005 on Corporate Profits, the National Farmers Union (NFU) analyzed some of the mechanisms agribusiness corporations, including chemical and seed corporations, use to extract profits from our farms. Two of the mechanisms identified were “cost externalization” and “shifting knowledge”. The current discussions in Ontario about the government’s proposal to restrict the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments have brought these two mechanisms to mind. The move to widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoid seed treatments, has provided the insecticide manufacturers with a ever-expanding market for their product over the past fifteen years. Many farmers have accepted the financial cost of the insecticides in return for some assurance that their crops will be protected from early season pests. At the same time, there have been externalized costs – costs that are borne by other farmers, such as beekeepers, and by our environment.
In terms of “shifting knowledge”, the 2005 NFU report suggested that prior to the 1980s farmers supplied most of the expertise and knowledge on their farms. In the decades since then, farmers have turned more and more to chemical and seed companies to provide solutions to the challenges we face growing crops — solutions that we are willing to pay for – such as new chemicals or new formulations to help us deal with various pests. What the 2005 NFU report missed was the decades-long removal of public funding for third-party agricultural extension and agricultural research carried out in the public interest. More and more, extension services available to farmers come from input suppliers who have products to sell us. At the same time, public agricultural research funding from both federal and provincial governments increasingly involves private partners and has shifted to support for commercialization of products rather than basic research and public plant breeding.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an internationally accepted process to solve pest problems while minimizing risks to people and the environment. In Ontario, the use of IPM is more common in the fruit and vegetable industry than in field crop production, likely because fruit and vegetables are more often sold fresh to consumers. In an effort to protect pollinators, both domestic and native, the Ontario government is advocating a return to the use of IPM for growing corn and soybeans – first through extension and education to farmers and more recently through the regulatory proposal to require farmers to demonstrate their use of IPM practices before receiving permission to use neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed.
Although IPM and organic production share management approaches, IPM includes the use of chemical pest control when other management approaches have not kept pest levels below a threshold that could lead to economic harm. IPM is strongly based on scientific research. To be effective, however, that scientific research must be interpreted and made available to farmers so we can make good management decisions. To effectively implement IPM practices on our farms, we need access to tools such as information on the life cycles of pests, the development of varieties resistant to pests, in-the-field pest identification support, acceptable pest thresholds in Ontario and long-term strategies to prevent pests from becoming a problem. Third party, publicly funded extension and research on Ontario conditions will be key to expanding the use of IPM practices to address the externalized costs of insecticides to our neighbours and our environment and to shift knowledge back into the hands of farmers.
Despite ever-decreasing funding and staff, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs field staff have worked diligently to increase awareness of and encourage the use of IPM practices in corn and soybean production, once the link between neonicotinoid seed treatments and pollinator health was identified. In the interest of our environment, in particular the health of domestic and wild pollinators, we as farmers need to make a commitment to shift knowledge back under our control by embracing the IPM process and its practices. At the same time, the Ontario public and the Ontario government have a long-term responsibility to provide farmers with third-party research and extension that is undertaken in the public interest with public dollars so that we can confidently make informed decisions about how to implement IPM practices on our farms.
Ann Slater farms in Oxford County and is the National Farmers Union Vice-President (Policy).