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agriculture

Farmer Sean McGivern,who doesn’t use the popular neonic pesticides, harvests corn for feed near Owen Sound, Ontario, Wednesday, December 10, 2014.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The Grain Farmers of Ontario has lost a court battle against the Ontario government's restrictions on a class of pesticide linked to the decline in pollinators.

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has rejected arguments of the group that speaks for 28,000 growers that the 2017 ban on planting corn and soybean treated with neonicotinoid insecticides was unworkable and would make crops prone to destruction by hungry pests.

"[A]ny claims of loss by the farmers is purely speculative at this stage. By contrast, there is a public interest aspect to ensuring the control of use of neonicotinoid-treated seeds to ensure that pollinators are not at risk," wrote Judge Sunhail Akhtar, who heard the matter in September and issued his reasons on Oct. 23.

The judge tossed out arguments the farmers had the right to use their land "as they see fit," and noted the group sought a "rewriting of the regulation in a manner that would permit the effects of the regulation to be delayed to [the group's] advantage."

"It is not the job of this court to pronounce on the efficacy or wisdom of government policy [without] constitutional or jurisdictional challenges, neither of which are made here," he wrote.

The Grain Farmers of Ontario did not immediately respond to two interview requests.

The ruling clears the way for North America's first agricultural ban on the pesticide that has become widely used on everything from ornamental flowers to sod and vegetables. Europe has banned three of the most common neonics, which have been shown to weaken pollinators and make them more susceptible to viruses, harsh winters and starvation. The chemicals are being found in streams and working their way up the food chain, research has found.

In Ontario, all canola, corn for grain and about 60 per cent of soybean seeds are treated with neonics before planting. The government says just 20 per cent of the crops require the protection against worms, grubs and other insects.

Under the new rules, use of neonic-treated corn and soybean seed is restricted to half a farm's acreage in 2016 and the entire farm by 2017, unless the grower can prove they need it.

Farmers say the chemicals are needed to protect rising crop yields, and that the Ontario rules will cost them millions of dollars. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] last year released a study showing neonics offered "negligible overall benefits" to soybean growers.

The EPA and Health Canada in April jointly halted approval of new crop uses for the class of pesticide to ensure there is no new risk to the environment while the groups' scientific review is under way.