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Report On Business Expert to talk to Ontario MPPs about environmental effects of neonic pesticide

Dr. Jean-Marc Bonmatin, a leading expert on neonicotinoids, is pictured beside one of the bee hives at the Fork York National Historical Site on May 27 2015.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As the Ontario government finalizes controversial restrictions on the agricultural use of pesticides linked to the decline in populations of bees and other pollinators, a world-renowned scientist has flown in to help.

Jean-Marc Bonmatin, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, on Thursday will walk MPPs through a half-hour slide presentation on the environmental effects of a pesticide class known as neonicotinoids, or neonics.

Mr. Bonmatin, a guest of environmental group David Suzuki Foundation, wants the province to stick with its plan to reduce use of neonic pesticide on corn and soybeans by 80 per cent within two years. The measures would be the first North American restrictions on the pesticide Mr. Bonmatin said is killing pollinators and birds, contaminating rivers and streams, and offering no benefits to the farmers who use it to grow corn, soybeans and other field crops.

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The Ontario rules, which take effect July 1, are opposed by the Grain Farmers of Ontario, a group that says the province ignored their claims the regulations would leave them unarmed in a fight on crop-destroying worms and bugs. The farm group, along with the chemical companies that sell the neonics-treated seeds, says bees are thriving, and that pollinator declines are exaggerated.

"Our farmers see value in the product," said Debra Conlon, a spokeswoman for the group that speaks for 28,000 Ontario growers.

Neonic-treated seeds, sold by Syngenta AG, Bayer AG and Dow Chemical Co., have become widely used in North American fields and greenhouses in the past decade. Proponents say they are safer for humans than other pesticides. They say bees do not ingest enough pesticide to be harmed, and their health is affected by a range of factors, including weather, food supplies, parasites and the hardships of transportation.

Mr. Bonmatin sees it differently. He says the pesticide, which is banned in Europe and under review by federal regulators in Canada and the United States, is many times more powerful than DDT, a crop treatment banned in the 1970s for its environmental damage.

The group of scientists he co-chairs, the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, reviewed more than 1,000 studies and determined neonics are killing bees and other insects by worsening the effects of diseases and harming their abilities to forage, navigate and reproduce. The chemicals are also persisting in water and reducing bird and aquatic populations, a Dutch study found.

"These chemicals are very toxic to insects and bees," said Mr. Bonmatin, noting studies on humans are limited but have linked neonics with cancer and other ill effects.

He points to a U.S. government study that showed soybean growers saw no benefit from using neonic-coated seeds. The results were similar to a Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency draft report this week that found banning neonics would reduce farm revenues by $91-million or 1.9 per cent, Global News reported.

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This clashes with a recent study paid for by the pesticide industry that pegged the cost of a neonic ban at $880-million. The industry points to studies that found minimal environmental effects of neonics. Agriculture groups and chemical companies have been issuing press releases and running newspaper ads decrying the proposed Ontario rules, saying bee populations are thriving.

For Mr. Bonmatin, it looks a lot like the debate in Europe 10 years ago, when industry interests clashed with public awareness of a mounting environmental problem.

"They want to create doubt," he said. "It's difficult for politicians to decide when there is a doubt. But from our point of view, there is no doubt."

Mr. Bonmatin said chemical companies are "mixing advice with sales."

Farmers are wary of planting without the security promised by the seed sellers, a fear that is reinforced by lenders that tie loans to crop yields. "Farmers are prisoners of the system," Mr. Bonmatin said.

Using treated seeds without a gain in yield is akin to a person taking antibiotics throughout the winter months in hopes of staying healthy. "It's stupid," expensive and fosters drug resistance, he said.

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