BY SEAN MCGIVERN
FARMER, WRITER AND FOOD ACTIVIST
The boiling point. It seems as if 2013 has become the year of the bee. The continued loss of honey bees has captured and maintained front-and-centre stage in the mainstream media numerous times over the past year. This spring, beekeepers began to sound the alarm for help, so much so that Big Ag and Big Chem, along with the organizations that represent them, have fired back with an attack—putting the blame on beekeepers for what they allege to be improper bee husbandry, and on Varro mites, as being the sole causes for the loss of bees. Late this summer, Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO), a producer-based organization originally set up to represent the needs of grains farmers, launched a spur-of-the-moment campaign by mailing out 28 thousand postcards to grain farmers across Ontario, asking that they lobby their MPs and MPPs not to ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
As a grain farmer, I received one of these postcards and, upon reading it, became rather upset and annoyed by the GFO's short-sightedness. Agriculture is highly dependent on the bee population and their loss should have had the Grain Farmers of Ontario organization fired up and wanting answers for its members, rather than sweeping the real issues under the carpet.
So, as a member of the GFO, I rang them right away, concerned about their attitude towards the whole issue, and was immediately stonewalled: CEO Barry Senft did not want to answer the few simple questions I had, insisting that I send my request for information in writing. Later that week I did just that. Within a week, I received a reply from the GFO saying they had reviewed my letter and, despite my request, they would not make available to me the minutes of their board meetings pertaining to discussions on the use of neonicotinoids and what had led them to send out postcards that were not fully supported by their membership. As a member in good standing, am I not entitled to this basic information? They said they would also not share with me where the funds to produce and mail the 28 thousand postcards had come from. Why would any organization that is supposed to be operating above board not be willing to share such information with its members?
A you've read in the previous story, neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Several global studies have linked their use to colony collapse disorder in bees, and research has supported the findings. Once bees have come into contact with this class of insecticide, even at very low doses, they become confused and are often unable to navigate their way back to their home-base hives after foraging for nectar and pollen, and they die. Those that do find their way home are found dead, or paralyzed and dying, in their hives. As a farmer who cares about the bigger picture, I had no choice but to continue looking into this issue and I am beyond concerned over the long-term effects these pesticides have had and are going to continue to have.
Neonicotinoid pesticides are a fairly new chemistry that have only been in use in North America since the mid 1980s, and it is only in the past five to ten years that they have been widely used. Corn seed was the first to be coated with these pesticides, but in the past three years seed sellers have chosen to add the neonic seed treatment to both canola and soybean seed. In 2011 and again in 2012, entomologists at Purdue University in Indiana undertook field trials comparing corn plants treated with and without neonicotinoid seed treatments. Their research could not prove any measurable statistical yield gain from the use of the neonic seed treatments, but the Grain Farmers of Ontario has been telling both farmers and the public that not using the treated seeds would result in a 3- to 20-bushel-per-acre loss for farmers, impairing a farmer's ability to capture a fair return on his investment.
For the most part, farmers like me have had to rely on the advice and "expertise" of the very same people who sell these products to us; as a cost-savings measure in the late 1980s, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture began to close down field extension offices that had been located in rural counties throughout Ontario.
These extension offices and the people who worked in them had been a direct link to farmers; they were there to share the most up-to-date information with farmers and it was information that wasn't associated with, or funded by, any products or companies. Their data were based on independent research from places like the University of Guelph, Ridgetown Ag College, and the Elora Farm Research Station. Far too often the trend today seems to be towards research that has been skewed and bought for a price; the ethical provision of sound, unbiased research is hard to come by. And, when research produces a negative outcome for a certain product, it is usually discounted as being inconclusive, left wing, or agenda-based. (If it's disclosed at all.)
The system in Canada that permits the sale of new products is based on government regulators reviewing peer-reviewed papers that support manufacturers' claims about their products. There is absolutely no government testing taking place to ensure that these products are safe. And most citizens have absolutely no idea how deficient and unsafe the actual process for bringing new chemicals to the marketplace is.
As a farmer who grows grains and oil seeds, I have always chosen not to use seeds treated with neonic seed treatments or any form of chemicals. I spray my grain crops for weeds only when absolutely necessary and always practise biological farming to protect the soil, air and water, which are the lifelines of any farm or ecosystem. This was a decision I made long before the issue of bee deaths had started to occur en masse.
I chose not to use these products because, in my youth, I worked for several farmers before I started farming full time for myself. I will always remember slugging 50-pound bags of treated grain off the wagon into the seed drill that was used for planting, and the farmers always reminding me not to touch the seed since it had been treated with some chemical that was supposed to save it from rotting in the ground. I also remember asking different farmers in those days why it was so dangerous and they were never all that sure; they just knew the seed always came packed in a bag with a skull and cross-bones on it and that the sales reps had always told them to be careful around it. But, as you can imagine, it was almost impossible not to get it on your hands as you ripped open each bag to pour the grain into the seed drill. And oftentimes it would be very warm out and we would be sweating and wiping our faces, all while we were likely poisoning ourselves without even realizing it.
So, as a farmer, I have chosen not to use treated seed. I have chosen to farm on a human scale. This affords me the opportunity to plant my crops on time and not have to use seed treatments that will protect my seeds from rotting in the ground because I've been forced to start planting well before the soil is ready in the spring. (Many large-scale grain farmers have a narrow window of time each spring to get their thousands of acres of crops planted on time.) I operate a highly diverse crop and livestock farm, unlike most crops farmers who only grow three main crops—corn, soy and wheat. I have chosen to grow such crops as barley, oats, field peas, rye, spelt and wheat, along with non-GMO corn and non-GMO soybeans.
As a farmer who cares greatly about more than just the number of bushels of grain I can get per acre, I try to really focus on soil health and the biological life of my soil. Healthy soil stimulates the living biology in the earth that works together in a process which leads to producing healthy food, healthy soil, and a healthy farming experience.
I think it is so important that the non-farming community get to know the people who are producing our food. And you, as consumers, have a responsibility to help support ecological farmers any way you can, because if farmers cannot get a fair price for their food, they cannot look after the health of their soil. And then you'd be left with a very limited choice of industrial, pesticide- and antibiotic-ridden factory-farmed food that is unsafe, deficient in many vital nutrients, and will leave you prone to many of the common diseases of our times.
So, to truly be able to support the bees, consumers must first support a style of agriculture that provides protection to the living ecosystems on the farms where bees live. This can only be achieved by dealing directly with farmers or responsible retailers who are able to give farmers a fair price for their products. As long as farmers are paid a living wage, they will always try to find new ways to produce the best possible food they can. Most of the farmers I associate with invest a lifetime of pride into producing life-sustaining food they can be proud of.
Sean McGivern, lives on farm in the pastoral heartland of Grey County, where he is a full-time farmer and president of the Practical Farmers of Ontario (www.practicalfarmersontario.ca), a grassroots-based farm organization that represents farmers involved in diverse sustainable agriculture, His farm totals nearly 2,000 acres of grain crops and livestock. He is also actively involved in several other farm and food organizations and was instrumental in helping bring an end to the genetically engineered Enviro Pig that was being developed by the University of Guelph. Sean also makes several speaking engagements each year, bringing to light many of the issues that are affecting agriculture, our food system, and farmers' and eaters' food sovereignty. You can follow Sean on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/seanmc4.