Neonics: Politics vs. Science

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Neonics are back in the headlines, this time because Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has begun public hearings on a proposal to restrict rather than ban their use. What makes this item newsworthy? Like so many "scientific" issues of our time, it is the polarized politics that provides the sizzle—in this case, the politics of our fuzzy friends, the bees.

Environmental lobbyists—Équiterre, the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and the Canadian Environmental Law Association—have mobilized behind the sensational claim that neonics are linked to the "mass deaths of honey bees," and are thus demanding that Canada follow France and institute a total ban. Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada, likens the feds' new regulations to being "half-pregnant," arguing that their "gutless" and "inadequate" response puts them in league with the evil pesticide manufacturers. Pitted against the environmentalists is the Grain Growers of Canada and its provincial counterparts, representing farmers whose yields would be hurt by the insect damage that would follow a neonics ban.

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But the question arises yet again: where's the science? Answer: it remains subordinated to bee politics, and subsumed in the smooth language of media relations.  According to the PMRA's Margherita Conti, "Scientific evidence shows that with the proposed restrictions applied, the use of clothianidin and thiamethoxam does not present an unacceptable risk to bees." Dr. Nadine Bachand, writing for Équiterre, counters: "The scientific consensus is clear: the continued use of neonics in agriculture is unsustainable and compromises the very basis of agriculture."

Where have we heard the term "scientific consensus" before? How long before we start hearing the epithet "neonics denier" from the environmental lobbies—modeled on the odious meme of climate-change denial and asserting the trust-us-we-know-what-we're-doing mantra of doctrinaire scientist-activists?

Canadians are more scientifically literate than ever. They care about bees, their gardens, the natural world more generally, the lives and livelihoods of farmers, and the price and availability of the food they eat. The science of neonics is newsworthy—far more so than the politics.