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To Ban or Not To Ban

There's a war about to take place. The honeybees are taking on industrial farming and the battle field is looking ugly.

Between April and June 2012, Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency received "an unusually high number of incident reports of bee losses" from across southern Ontario. The agency said the reports involved 40 beekeepers and more than 200 bee yards. Residues of nitro-guanidine neonicotinoid insecticides used to treat corn seed were detected in approximately 70 per cent the dead bee samples analyzed by the agency.

The agency said the "timing and location of these incidents coincided with corn planting in major corn-producing regions" of Ontario. Virtually all corn seed is treated with a neonicotinoid insecticide, which could pose a threat to the health of honey bees when "neonicotinoid contaminated dust" is eventually carried into the air and could be linked to the death of thousands of bees.

In Ontario, the ag ministry is asking farmers to better communicate with beekeepers who have hives in their area — bees can forage up to five kilometres from their hive. The ministry also encourages farmers to let local beekeepers know when they plan to plant.

The environmental advocacy group Sierra Club Canada is similarly calling for a Canada to take the pesticides off the market until they have been proven safe.

However, Kevin Armstrong, a farmer who grows corn, wheat and soybean south of Woodstock, Ont., told CBC's The Current that neonicotinoid pesticides are essential for protecting corn seeds and seedlings during their crucial first month.

Armstrong said neonicotinoids are largely responsible for a 15 per cent increase in Ontario corn yields over the past 15 years, and so a ban on them could cause a significant loss. A loss of 10 per cent translates into about $100 an acre, he said. If Ontario farmers plant 2.3 million acres of corn as expected, that could amount to a $230-million loss.

But at what cost to the other 90% of crops that need pollination? Corn, wheat and soy either wind pollinated and/or transgenic seed.