What Killed Ontario Bees Last Winter?

I’ve being doing some investigation, trying to understand why Ontario’s honey bee losses were so high in the winter of 2013/14. A reported 58% of total colonies were killed. I was intrigued by the high loss percentage for Ontario compared to other provinces (Table 1), and anecdotal reports of huge differences among individual beekeepers (range 0 to 100% loss). I’ve talked to many beekeepers and bee experts in Ontario and elsewhere. This column summarizes what I’ve learned.

Table 1. Gross Wintering Losses by Province, 2013/14

Table of Canadian bee losses in 2013-14a
*Note: Calculated from the percent winter kill reported in the survey of beekeepers multiplied by the total number of colonies reported to Statistics Canada in the fall of 2013.
** Note: Calculated as total estimated mortality in Canada divided by the total estimated number of colonies in Canada wintered.

To begin, there is significant doubt as to whether the Ontario percentage was actually 58%. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) reports that its estimate is based on survey responses from only 97 of the 247 commercial beekeepers in the province, and only about 10% of all beekeepers. (About 90% of Ontario beekeepers are classed as non-commercial; ‘non-commercial’ being defined as having fewer than 50 colonies.) A substantial increase in the number of reported honey bee colonies in Ontario in the summer of 2014 (112,800, Statistics Canada, compared to 100,000 in late 2013, Table 1) makes one wonder if the 58% estimate isn’t too high. In addition, there is wide-spread speculation among beekeepers and other bee professionals that the Ontario Beekeepers Financial Assistance Program established in early 2014 (government payment of $105 per lost hive for colony losses above 40%) acted as an incentive to report exaggerated losses, especially since the definition of “loss” in that program seems rather subjective. (“Weak” hives are losses.) Nevertheless, Ontario did lose a lot of bee colonies during winter 2013/14.

Factor 1: Harsh Winter

The hardness of the 2013/2014 winter was undoubtedly a dominant factor. As Table 2 demonstrates, there is a close correlation between average December-to-March temperature and reported colony losses.

Table 2. Over-winter bee losses and winter temperatures in Ontario.

Over-winter bee losses in Ontario(1)
* Source of hive loss data is here.
** Kitchener, ON (Environment Canada), used as a proxy for southern/southwestern Ontario.

The winter of 2013/14 was abnormally cold compared to the historical average for Southern Ontario and bee losses were high. However, winter 2014/14 in Southern Ontario was not as cold as in the Prairie Provinces where the bee losses were far smaller. Discussions with beekeepers indicate that an inadequate supply of stored food over the winter was a major reason for large losses in Ontario. Bees do not hibernate but cluster within hives and vibrate to keep warm. To maintain hive temperature they require a steady and large supply of food stored in the hive over the winter. This requirement increases in about February when brood production begins for the following spring season. Brood temperature must be maintained at about 34C. Some commercial beekeepers have described how they visited hives in March 2014 to replenish food reserves because of the unusually harsh winter. Some beekeepers did not (especially hobbyists, I’m told) and many of their bees starved/froze to death. I assume that in Western Canada, beekeepers automatically provide larger amounts of over-winter food reserves to ensure bee survival during their long winter seasons. Perhaps because of the 2013/14 experience, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs issued a new document in September 2014, Best Management Practices for Ontario beekeepers in Advance of Winter, with detailed advice on how to help bees survive.

Factor 2: Pollination Services in Eastern Canada.

A substantial portion of Ontario hives are used for pollination services and about one-quarter of all hives are now transported to the Maritime Provinces and Quebec for this purpose each spring – primarily for pollination of blueberries (mostly) and cranberries. Beekeepers in both Ontario and the Maritime Provinces say that this process is very hard on bees because of both the inadequate nutrition provided by blueberry flowers and stress from transportation. (I’m told a 10% hive loss during the two-way shipment to and from the pollination sites is common for good managers – higher for others.)

One Ontario commercial beekeeper, who provides thousands of hives for pollination services in the Maritime Provinces, told me he devotes the entire summer after the bees return in July to rebuilding his colonies for the winter. He provides supplemental sugar-water solution as needed during the summer and collects no honey from them. He says he allows bees to forage on semi-abandoned farm fields in Northern Ontario with large numbers of wild flowers, and free from many of the pesticides and other chemicals associated with more intensive agriculture and more intensive human settlement. (He says golf courses are bad for bees.) In order to improve bee health, he has discontinued pollination of cranberries in Quebec when the bees return from the Maritime Provinces to Ontario. His loss percentage was still about 30% last winter, but only half of the official Ontario average.

A contrast is the experience of another commercial Ontario beekeeper, comparable in size to the previously mentioned beekeeper. This beekeeper provides pollination colonies to blueberries in the Maritime Provinces but then uses them later for honey production back in Ontario. He reported hive losses in the 80-90% range for winter 2013/14.

I also talked to a large commercial beekeeper from Eastern Ontario who does not ship hives to the Maritime Provinces or Quebec. His 2013/14 winter loss was only 9%.

Although these examples are anecdotal and certainly don’t represent any formal survey, they do imply that long-distance transport of bees (i.e. migratory beekeeping) for blueberry pollination contributes significantly to Ontario’s high winter-kill percentage. It’s worth noting that large-scale shipment of bees from Ontario is a recent phenomenon. I’m told that no shipments to the Maritime Provinces occurred before about 2000, and the percentage of Ontario hives shipped eastward has doubled since 2010. In addition, with migratory bee services, shippers generally combine the hives supplied by several Ontario beekeepers onto single truck beds for transportation. This process may unintentionally facilitate the spread diseases/pests among bees, adding to the potential for losses.

In a recent document, the Province of Ontario announced its intention to both increase migratory beekeeping operations for pollination and reduce over-winter losses to a maximum of 15%. That represents a very difficult challenge – probably an impossible one.

It is not my intent to condemn the use of Ontario bees for pollination services in Quebec and Maritime Provinces. That’s a process which supports Eastern Canadian fruit growers and provides additional income for Ontario beekeepers. But this comes at a cost in terms of increased over-winter bee mortality.

Factor 3. Varroa mites.

University of Guelph bee researcher Dr. Ernesto Guzman and his colleagues concluded in a 2010 report that varroa mites are responsible for about 85% of over-winter bee deaths in Ontario. Dr. Guzman stated recently he believes this percentage still applies. A measurement of only three Varroa mites per 100 bees is sufficient to pretty much ensure death for an over-wintering hive (Dr. Guzman, personal communication, and reference here). Varroa mites are considered the reason why wild honey bees (colonies which escape via swarming) no longer survive very long in the wild in southern Canada. However, during the course of their existence in the wild, be it in abandoned buildings, woodlots or abandoned beeyards, they become a biosecurity hazard as a breeding ground for varroa mites that may inflict damage (by providing additional Varroa load) to managed hives in the vicinity.

Although some executive members of the Ontario Beekeepers Association have down-played the importance of Varroa mites while suggesting that management is now effective, routine and generally challenge-free (see here for example), my conversations with commercial beekeepers suggest otherwise. Varroa mite management remains difficult and involves some critical management choices on a regular basis. A typical beekeeper treats his/her hives in both spring and fall – never eliminating mites completely in the process, but knocking their numbers down enough for bees to carry on relatively unaffected. But mites reproduce quickly, so the process must be repeated often with great vigilance.

Varroa mites develop resistance to miticides quickly so the struggle to find new and effective miticides never ends. The current products are primarily Apivar (which has been granted emergency and then conditional registration since 2006 for use in Canada), and combinations of formic and/or oxalic acid. Miticides can also be really rough on bees, so that mite control becomes a question of killing most of the mites but not too many bees. This balance is very sensitive to temperature in the case of formic acid. If you treat the bees and it gets hot soon afterwards, bee deaths can be excessive. And if it’s too cool, the degree of mite control is too low even though bees are still killed. Older pesticide products are also still used sometimes for varroa control, even though the quality of control may be limited because of developed genetic resistance to these miticides. Varroa mites have developed resistance to Apivar in the United States. (Good review here.)

The timing of the fall application is especially important to ensure that the newly formed winter bee populations are not affected by the treatment. If you delay too long, the risk of over-winter deaths mounts, but when you treat early, you are unable to market the honey production from bees foraging on late-summer/early-fall plants like golden rod and wild asters. (The honey cannot be used when miticides are applied.)

This is not to imply that Varroa mite management is hopelessly difficult, but, rather, that it is far from simple or routine. Dr. Guzman’s conclusion that Varroa mites are responsible for 85% of bee losses in Ontario seems highly relevant. Varroa mites are also effective vectors for the spread of viral diseases (see here and discussion below).

Factor four. Other diseases/pests.

I’ll mention this only briefly as I don’t pretend to understand all of the complexities involved. This diagram, borrowed from Twitter, shows some of the pests/diseases.

Bee diseases

One large beekeeper told me, “The main two diseases that bees deal with are American Foulbrood and Nosema apis and ceranae. They are difficult to control if the beekeeper doesn’t know what to look for (most smaller-scale producers don’t), and even if you do know what to look for, it’s a challenge.”

Though the magnitude of their contribution to Ontario bee deaths still remains largely unknown, bee viruses are getting increasing attention, no doubt, in part, because of their linkage to Varroa mites. Unpublished survey research by the University Manitoba found that most of the bees sampled across Canada had the Deformed Wing Virus (DWV), and DWV has been directly linked to high winter loss of bees as well as Varroa mite infestation. I’m told that DWV symptoms can be very similar to those caused by central nervous system toxins like insecticides. For references see here, here and here. However, experts say that virulence depends on the intensity of the viral infection (just as with human colds) and information about viral infection intensities in Ontario seems to be pretty much non-existent.

Factor five. Pesticides.

Insecticides have been long recognized for their negative effect on bees. Insecticides kill insects. Dimethoate (Cygon) is sometimes used by farmers for insect pest control (eg., soybean aphids), and special care needs to be taken to avoid application to flowering plants when bees are present. While bees tend to avoid plants treated with the pyrethrin (organic) insecticides, this class of pesticides is also very deadly if sprayed when bees are present.

Neonicotinoid (neonic) insecticides are also toxic to bees; there is sufficient research and other evidence to indicate that, with certain “vacuum- type” corn planters, neonic seed treatments can cause acute bee deaths if neonic-laden dust comes in contact with foraging bees nearby. However, there is very little evidence to indicate that seed treatments contributed significantly to over-winter bee deaths in 2013/14 deaths in Ontario. While there is published research showing that exposure of bees to ‘sub-lethal’ concentrations of neonics can cause some abnormal behaviour, these are virtually all lab experiments in which bees have been treated with concentrations and durations of exposure beyond what is normal under field conditions. For two major reviews, see here and here. For further discussion see my previously posted columns, here and here. See also a recent update from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Canada.

Factor six. Bee Management.

While no one in agriculture likes to be accused of poor management (it’s always more satisfying to blame someone else, preferably a big company), it seems obvious that good beekeeper management is both critically important and very difficult. Bee management is a very important factor in explaining differences among beekeepers in 2013/14 over-winter losses. In addition, bee management became far more difficult in Canada with the arrival of varroa mites. Beekeepers say it was once possible for anyone to keep some bees in the backyard, collect honey in autumn, and, with some simple steps, keep bees alive over winter. Now, without a lot of sophisticated skills for pest management, high over-winter bee losses are almost certain.

Two successful, highly skilled beekeepers told me how they once turned day-to-day management of their hives over to someone else for a season. (The reasons were poor health and other business demands.) In each case, the result was a high over-winter loss percentage. Fortunately, in both cases, the loss percentages plunged the following year when the owner re-assumed direct and proper management of the hives. One commercial beekeeper told me that he now needs double-to-triple the number of employees per 1000 hives compared to years past.

In summary, bee management is difficult and critically important, and probably the biggest reason for difference in over-winter bee losses among beekeepers – bearing in mind that management becomes much more difficult when the operation involves migratory beekeeping services and the movement of hives for hundreds of kilometers. I suspect many commercial beekeepers would not agree with this recent statement by the president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association to a committee of the Senate of Canada, “Beekeeping hasn’t changed a lot in over 100 years.”

Bottom line:

It would appear that a long, cold winter, inadequate over-winter nutrition, bee shipments to Quebec and the Maritime Provinces for pollination, and Varroa mites and other related diseases/pests were the dominant reasons for the large loss of Ontario hives in 2013/14. Differences in management skills were responsible for large differences among individual beekeepers. Pesticides were likely a minor factor. As for neonics specifically, one wonders: If these compounds did not exist at all, would the reported 58% over-winter loss have been significantly lower? Evidence suggests it’s doubtful – and this is before considering the alternatives which crop farmers would have used for insect management. If the Province of Ontario really wants to reduce over-winter colony losses, it needs to focus its attention on the important factors rather than the agendas of anti-pesticide lobby groups.

Critique of “A Proposal for Enhancing Pollinator Health and Reducing A Proposal for Enhancing Pollinator Health and Reducing the Use of Neonicotinoid Pesticides in Ontario” – Discussion Paper by the Government of Ontario

On November 25, the Province of Ontario announced its intention to dramatically reduce the usage of neonicotinoid (neonic) insecticide seed treatments by farmers, the stated goal being an 80% reduction by 2017. This is portrayed as a core part of a strategy by the province to reduce over-winter bee colony losses to an average of 15%. I have reviewed a discussion paper (hereafter referred to as the document) released by the government presenting its rationale and intended plan, and I offer the following comments.

In general, the document displays a somewhat superficial understanding of floral pollination and causes of over-winter bee deaths in Ontario, provides a very imbalanced view of the relationship between neonic usage and bee well-being, and proposes solutions which are likely to create serious environmental and agricultural problems with dubious offsetting benefits. The document presents a perspective very similar to that of several prominent anti-pesticide activist organizations (NGOs) though I have not taken the time to check for exact duplications.

The following are more specific comments:

1. The Document refers repeatedly to declining pollinator numbers, but presents no supporting statistics or references to credible data sources. In fact, Statistics Canada (here and here) shows that honey bee colony numbers have increased steadily in recent years in Ontario and Canada – up by 41% in Ontario from 2009 to 2014, and by 17% for Canada. The same trend exists globally with world hive numbers increasing from about 71 million in 2000 to more than 81 million in 2003 according to FAO statistics. As for wild bees, the report emphasizes declines in native pollinators, citing the State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2010 Report released by the Ontario Biodiversity Council. But that report says that, though “some species of bumble bees, like the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee found in Ontario, have experienced severe declines,” the status of most of Canada’s 700 wild bee species is largely unknown. In addition, a major recent review by an international research team including researchers at Ottawa and York Universities stated “we show that pesticide use and habitat loss are unlikely to be major causes of decline for any of the Bombus [bumble bee] species examined.”

2. The document appears weak in basic knowledge about pollinators, even though that is its stated primary purpose. For example, the document refers in several places to the importance of butterflies as pollinators. It talks about concerns over migrating pollinators – obviously Monarchs butterflies. But while butterflies pollinate a few wild flower species, they are not known to pollinate any farm/horticultural crop and are considered to be quite minor pollinators (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada). This emphasis in the document reads like an attempt to link neonics with popular concerns about Monarchs even though no such linkage is known to exist. The inclusion of photographs of a Monarch butterfly and two of other butterfly species adds to this perception. The document also refers to a need for bee pollination services for peaches. That is simply untrue; this crop is self-pollinated and Ontario peach growers do not use bee pollination services.

3. One apparent driver for the current action by the Province of Ontario involves the 58% loss in Ontario hives in the winter of 2013/14. While this percentage is high, it is not unprecedented. Losses were 60-70% in the winter of 2006/07 in the Niagara region. Although the document suggests that 15% loss was the norm in previous years, the literature suggests otherwise. On excellent source is The Rise and Fall of the Honey Bee by Borst which includes a reference to Hiemstra, Henry. (2006) The History of Beekeeping in Ontario, Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, stating ‘Winter losses of over 50% were not uncommon even before the mites.’

4. Despite public claims and suggestions of this in the document, any linkage between over-winter deaths and neonic seed treatments is completely conjectural. A report by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), describing the survey of 2013/14 losses is careful not to ascribe cause, though it does summarize beekeeper opinions which were no doubt been influenced by an effective media campaign by activist groups blaming neonics for these deaths. Some research does indicate that sub-lethal exposure to neonics can cause subtle differences in bee behaviour. But virtually all of these results come from within-laboratory research where bees have been exposed for extended periods of time to concentrations of neonics above what bees would experience in real-world conditions. Independent reviews by leading bee experts have concluded that there are no documented effects on honeybees, bumblebees or solitary bees at field realistic doses. See Blaquière et al., 2012 – a review of more than 1500 publications over 15 years. A similar conclusion appears in the November 2014 Update on Neonicotinoid Pesticides and Bee Health by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Health Canada, and in a review by the pesticide regulatory agency in Australia. It’s perhaps of interest that bumble bees which have been identified as vulnerable to sub-lethal exposure to neonics, collect very little corn pollen. Corn pollen has been identified as a possible source of very low level (a few parts per billion), post-planting-season exposure to neonics.

5. Missing in the document is any consideration of reasons why the divergence is so large among data on over-winter bee losses for the most three recent winters in Ontario. For the winters of 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14, the corresponding loss percentages were 12%, 38% and 58%. This is despite the fact that neonic usage for corn plus soybean seed treatment was essentially the same in all three previous cropping seasons. What was different was the severity of the three winters ranging from very mild (2011/12) to very severe (2013/14). Many Ontario beekeepers say that many hives perished in late winter/early spring of 2014 simply because they ran out of within-hive food supplies. Some beekeepers made a special effort to replenish hive food supplies in late winter and were rewarded by lower hive losses. All of this is largely missing in the document – in favour of a focus on neonics.

6. Dr. Ernesto Guzman, a University of Guelph bee researcher, and his colleagues have shown that about 85% of over-winter bee deaths in Ontario can be attributed to varroa mites. Unfortunately, this fact is effectively missing from the document – indeed, varroa mites are not even mentioned in the section called Honey bee over-winter mortality. (Varroa mites are listed along with other bee pests/diseases in a much later section.) Varroa are considered to be the reason why honey bees can no longer survive in the wild in Ontario; feral colonies die quickly from varroa infestation according to Ontario bee researchers. Also largely missing from the document is recognition of how difficult and complicated successful varroa mite management really is. For many beekeepers, excessive usage of older miticides such as Apistan (fluvalinate, a pyrethroid) and Coumophos (an organophosphate) led to mite resistance. Most beekeepers now use Apivar (amitraz) and/or formic acid, for mite control. These pesticides which beekeepers place within hives are themselves quite toxic to bees if not managed properly. This is especially so for formic acid applied in various forms which can be a major contributor to bee deaths if temperature and other conditions are not proper.

7. The document contains only a casual reference to bee viruses, noting correctly that varroa mites are effective agents for viral transmission, but stating that they “are not typically understood to be primary drivers for colony death.” The scientific community suggests otherwise. The authors of the document seem unaware of recent survey data for Canada, including Ontario, done by the University of Manitoba showing that close to 100% of sampled hives were infected with the Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) (Dr. Suresh Desai, personal communication). DWV has been directly linked to high winter losses of bees. The attribution of bee viral disease symptoms to neonicotinoids has caused much confusion among beekeepers. For references see here, here and here. A good general reference is Currie, R.W., Pernal, S.F., and Guzmán-Novoa, E. (2010). “Honey bee colony losses in Canada.”

8. The document describes the need for increasing shipments of bees from Ontario to Atlantic Canada and Quebec for pollination of blueberries and other crops. This now represents about one-quarter of Ontario hives at the present time. Unfortunately, the document ignores the major negative effect which this has on bee survival. Industry sources say a mortality rate of 15% is common for these shipments. Bee and blueberry crop experts in Atlantic Canada say that both the transportation process and the inadequate nutrition provided by blueberry flowers can be extremely hard on bees returning to Ontario. Professional beekeepers say they must devote the rest of the summer to a process of trying to rebuild bee health so as to reduce subsequent over-winter losses. Some commercial beekeepers do not ship bees east for pollination purposes, stating that this is the reason for their much lower over-winter losses. Importantly, the shipment of bees from Ontario to Atlantic Canada only began in the early 2000s, about the time that average over-winter bee death percentages rose in Ontario, but this linkage is ignored in the document. Incredulously, the document projects a reduction to overwinter losses of 10-15% in Ontario while simultaneously increasing long-distance shipments of bees for pollination services. This is highly contradictory.

Worth noting, too, is the fact that some large Ontario beekeepers who ship bees east for pollination purposes make no attempt to collect honey from the returning hives all summer long – concentrating fully on attempting to rebuild colonies before the following winter. This is one major reason why average honey production per hive has often declined in Ontario in recent years. However, honey production was up 29% in 2014 over 2013 (reference: Statistics Canada). Perhaps Ontario honey bee colonies were not as weakened in 2014 as portrayed in the document.

9. The Document refers to survey data provided by PMRA but this information is presented in a somewhat mischievous manner, and includes no recognition of 2014 findings. It is true that the most recent report from PMRA was not released formally until November 25, the same date as the release of the Ontario government document. However, the data and much of the other information in the PMRA report have been presented publicly by PMRA staff on several occasions in recent months. In addition, one would expect that provincial officials would have consulted frequently with PMRA before releasing a major provincial document on pesticide usage. The 2014 report of PMRA shows that although most reported bee deaths in Ontario in 2012 occurred during the spring corn planting season, that was not so apparent in 2013. And in 2014, about 75% of reported deaths (72% of these from only three beekeepers) occurred after the end of the spring planting season. Although PMRA concludes that neonic-laden dust escaping from certain types of corn/soybean planters was a significant factor with acute bee deaths at spring time, the agency also says available data show no demonstrable linkage between neonic usage/exposure and bee deaths thereafter. Further, PMRA noted that reports of seeding-time bee mortality were down 70% in 2014, a fact that the agency says may be related, at least in part, to measures taken by farmers and the seed industry to reduce seeding-time emissions (new “fluency” agent, “dust deflectors,” etc.). Essentially all of this information is missing from the document, in favour of a targeted focus on neonics.

10. The PMRA review makes reference to the extensive use of neonic seed treatments for canola production in Canada, including Ontario. About 80% of Canadian seed treatment involves canola with the per-acre rate of application of neonic application being about the same with canola as with corn. However, PMRA has received no claims of bee mortality associated with neonic-treated canola crops. European research summarized by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA, references here, here and here) shows that the potential bee floral exposure to neonics is about 10 times higher with oilseed rape (equivalent to canola) flowers as with corn pollen. University of Guelph researcher Dr. Scott-Dupree and Dalhousie University researcher Dr. Cutler, in two recent major research papers (here and here), found no effect of canola-neonic-seed treatment on bee mortality. There is further discussion here on corn-canola comparisons. It is disappointing that this very major anomaly is ignored in the document – surprising since this has been a matter of major public discussion among beekeepers and farmers in Ontario for many months.

11. The document contains high-profile reference to reports from a group called the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Task Force on Systemic Pesticides. In fact, this is an international group of activist scientists known for their opposition to pesticides, and the evidence seems clear that their approach (including a high-profile news conference organized for them by several multinational NGOs in Ottawa in July) was part of a well-designed scheme designed to discredit neonic insecticides. This scheme has received major condemnation. For more detail, see here, here, here and here. The group claims to have checked 800 literature citations on neonics. (The document says they were all peer-reviewed, but a review of the citations shows this is not correct.) Bias in interpretations of the literature is as relevant as number of publications reviewed, and the IUCN group has a definite bias and agenda. A review of some of the task force review papers, for example this key one involving neonic effects on invertebrates, shows some clear evidence of bias. The reviews were funded in part by groups known to have anti-pesticide agendas and a representative of one or more of these groups was a co-author. While the authors claim no influence of funders on the contents of the papers, consider what the credibility would be if it were the reverse – funding and co-authorship by organizations known to be favourable to pesticides. As one example of bias, consider the up-front table comparing the LD50 for honey bee exposure of various insecticides to DDT. This is even though DDT was banned in many countries for reasons totally unrelated to bee toxicity (banned because of effects on bird shells and evidence of bioaccumulation in fat tissues). This appears as an attempt by the authors to sensationalize rather than to provide objective, meaningful information.

Despite that, it is reasonable for reports of the IUCN group to have been considered by the Province in drafting the document. But to have this as about the primary cited source of scientific information seems irresponsible. The other cited source is even worse, the US-based Center for Food Safety (CFI), generally known for its highly negative view to large corporations and many forms of modern technology including pesticides. (See here for example.) At the same time, authors of the document ignored published reports (see here and here) of a highly qualified panel of global experts assembled by the US EPA in 2012, in cooperation with PMRA, to examine risks, including pesticide risks, to pollinators. To cite CFI but not the EPA-PMRA materials or the review of Blacqière et al can only be classed as irresponsible ‘cherry picking.’

12. The document states, “The potential for carryover of residues may be of concern since these may be transported through run-off from fields to nearby water bodies,” apparently based largely on the work of a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan associated with IUCN. But her conclusions about ecological harm have been questioned/doubted by other Canadian researchers (reference) and the concentrations she measured were generally in the range of 0-50 parts per trillion (far below concentrations known to harm bees).

13. Totally ignored in the document is the widespread usage of neonics for flea control on household pets. This omission is hard to understand if neonics are as dangerous as portrayed in the featured IUCN reports.

14. It’s also puzzling that the document makes reference to data provided by the US EPA questioning the benefits of neonic seed treatment to soybean growers, while completely ignoring relevant data from Ontario, including tests done by staff of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The Ontario data generally show a consistent yield advantage with neonic seed treatment. There is credible information showing that the EPA conclusion may not be accurate for the United States, as well. Under PMRA regulations governing pesticide registration, a pesticide cannot be registered for Canadian usage unless it has proven ‘efficacy,’ i.e., agronomic benefits in yield and/or the management of harmful pests. In fact, the document contains essentially no reference to any published documentation on the benefits of neonic seed treatment to agriculture and Ontario (i.e., local) food production. The document ignores a major recent report by the Conference Board of Canada which calculated that benefit may be worth $630 million annually to Ontario agriculture. These omissions suggest that the intent of the document is to emphasize only negative aspects of farm (though not urban) neonicotinoid usage.

15. The document also contains no consideration of the environmental implications of alternative practices which farmers will be obliged to employ if denied reasonable access to the use of neonic-treated seeds. Experience from Europe seems relevant. Various reports from there including one by the Home Grown Cereal Authority (an agency of the Government of the UK) have documented both crop losses experienced by the loss of crop neonic seed treatments and the shift by farmers to the use of other, generally more toxic alternatives such as pyrethroids. There are anecdotal reports of farmers applying insecticides up to five times with field sprayers in an attempt to manage insect pests which were formerly controlled by neonicotinoid seed treatments. In September 2014, the UK permitted emergency registration of two new neonic spray treatments to allow farmers to counter the damage created by the neonic seed treatment ban. A shift to pyrethroids is also occurring with corn production in France, and it seems reasonable to expect that this will be a likely outcome with the intended process in Ontario.

16. The review of what is happening in other jurisdictions is far from complete and very one-sided. The decision by the European Union to institute a two-year moratorium on neonic seed treatments was opposed by several countries including the United Kingdom. The pesticide regulatory agency in Australia released a major report noting that although neonic seed treatments are used extensively in that country, there has been no notable effect on bees. A common explanation for the colony losses in Australia is that varroa mites have not yet infected their bees. Finally it’s worth noting that the Ontario approach goes well beyond what has been introduced in Europe: the European moratorium is for only two years, after which the EU will assess the extent to which this action has proven beneficial to bee health. No such time-limited approach is proposed for Ontario.

17. While the document is careful to refer only to neonic-treated corn and soybean seeds, the wording clearly implies that the scope is broader. A new Class 12 is to be created for pesticide seed treatments, and treated seeds will commonly be defined as “pesticides” themselves. (Interesting that the Province has not chosen to do the same with neonic-treated family pets.) The document says, “The proposed policy is that the sale of Class 12 pesticides is prohibited except in certain circumstances.” This says to me that the standard practice with be for most seed treatments to be prohibited – presumably for fungicides as well as insecticides – in the longer term. At least two pesticide manufacturers that I am aware of are in the process of seeking PMRA registration for new seed-applied insecticide ingredients/products. The understanding is that these new materials are less toxic to bees and other non-target organisms. There is anticipation that these could be available for commercial usage as soon as 2016 or 2017. I am also aware that several NGOs are trying aggressively to discourage PMRA from such registrations, based on the assumption that ‘all seed-applied pesticides are bad.’ The document states that these new products if/when approved by PMRA will be automatically prohibited for usage in Ontario unless granted an exemption. And we can be assured that the same NGO lobby effort and disrespect-for-good-science in Government of Ontario decision making, which triggered the current anti-neonic initiative, will also be huge obstacles. Perhaps these will be insurmountable hurdles for any company seeking an “exemption” for the newer products. Perhaps the companies will not even try, leaving Ontario as the only North American jurisdiction where the newer, safer technology is not available for farm use.

18. The two-fisted approach proposed in the document may work for farmers who have persistent problems with insect damage to planted seeds and seedling plants, even though the process seems excessive: it requires both farmer training and expert approval (a bit like having to take a course in alternative medicine before a patient gets a prescription from a medical doctor for an infection). However, the proposed approach will not work when the insect problem is more sporadic and/or unanticipated, as is often the case. In addition, farmers generally make their choices on crop varieties to grow and seed treatments to be used many months before planting. This allows the seed industry to provide the seeds needed before time of planting – not a small task.

If the anticipated insect problem is known many months in advance, this is manageable, but if it only becomes apparent a few days before planting, the only apparent option is for seed companies to provide excess supply of treated seed in the event of this occurrence. The net effect will likely be added expense for the seed industry, higher costs for farmers, and a reduction in the number of varieties offered for sale to farmers in Ontario – all compared to neighbouring and competitive jurisdictions. And of course, if the insect problem does not become apparent until after planting, seed treatment is not an option for control and spray applications and crop losses will follow – just as is now happening in Europe. The document is silent on compensation to farmers for these added costs and crop losses. The expected response for many Ontario corn and soybean farmers (especially the former) will be to opt for banded insecticide applications just as is now happening in France. This is a step back – to using the more risky technologies which were used before neonic seed treatments were introduced.

Curiously, while the document details a need for farmer training on integrated pest management (IPM), it is silent on a similar need for beekeepers for mite control. This would seem especially important given the speed at which mites develop resistance to pesticides, the propensity of miticides to kill excessive numbers of bees when not used properly, and the incomplete registration status of some product(s) used.

Bottom Line:

This document will be well received by those groups and individuals who see pesticide bans as a desirable objective regardless of costs and benefits to farmers. It is far less satisfactory to those who want regulatory decisions based on sound science rather than advocacy or political expediency. The proposed actions will lead to higher costs of production and greater crop losses for Ontario farmers compared to competing farmers in adjacent jurisdictions. The document weakens the credibility of the Government of Ontario and its professed intent to improve agri-food competitiveness and productivity in the province. This is the second time this government has imposed a ban (or de facto ban) on pesticide usage in Ontario in defiance of good science. The document refers repeatedly to the need for a precautionary approach, apparently mimicking some European jurisdictions which use this to justify actions when there is limited or no scientific rationale. But proper use of this approach requires consideration of the known risks as well as the unknown benefits of a proposed action – something which clearly has not been done in the present document. It also will lead Ontario farmers and agriculture and other citizens and industries to question what will be the next targets for this selective, activist-driven approach.

And, given the document’s focus on neonicotinoid insecticides despite the lack of any linkage other than conjectural to over-winter bee mortality, this expensive exercise by itself is unlikely to result in any notable improvement in bee mortality in Ontario.

Greater and More-Visible Leadership on Sustainable Agriculture Needed from Farm Organizations

Two years ago I wrote a column describing how quickly major global food processors and retailers are moving to create global standards for purchases of ‘sustainably produced’ food ingredients. This change is occurring in direct response to demands from consumers and activist organizations. My column stated that farmers/farm groups need to seize more leadership in this process if they want these standards to reflect/include their own concepts, understanding and experiences for sustainable development – and not just those coming from corporate executives and pressure groups.


Though what lies ahead was obvious two years ago, I am still surprised at the rapidity of the change, with company after company rushing to announce commitments to sustainable development – usually (though not always) followed up with credible implementation strategies. Think of McDonald’s, Walmart, Unilever, Mondelez (formerly Kraft) and many others. The CEO of Cargill was part of an international panel, recently proclaiming a commitment to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. I don’t think that would have happened two years ago. This situation has changed dramatically from 10 years ago when ‘sustainable agriculture’ tended to mean expensive organic vegetables in a pick-up truck.

For sure, some – perhaps even most – of this effort is driven by a desire for image and market share improvement. But it is also driven by a desire of responsible corporate executives to do the ‘right thing.’ Whatever their motives, the result is clear: rapid changes in the global marketplace for agriculture and food.

What’s remarkable is that this trend has blossomed in an era of economic recessions and monetary crises, and with global media headlines featuring food shortages and price concerns. Think what it will be like as media headlines shift to tales about domestic and international grain surpluses.

There are already a huge number of global and regional/national initiatives and standards for sustainable agriculture and food, including several initiatives in Canada. Many of these are commodity- (or commodity-group) specific, eg., palm oil, coffee, potatoes, soybeans, sea foods, pulse crops, to name a few. The biggest international effort may be the European-based Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI). It was started by Unilever, Nestlé and Danone and now includes 60 of the world’s largest food processors and retailers. The SAI web site provides links to a myriad of other sustainability certification programs and a form for assaying the sustainability of individual agricultural operations. It’s called Farm Sustainability Assessment 2.0, and is accessible on-line.

Expect to see the stature and significance of the SAI and SAI-like assessment processes grow in months ahead. This is positive in that global companies are showing much greater interest in how foods are produced/grown. But it’s also very disturbing in that the SAI full membership does not include a single farm group. Indeed, farm groups are not eligible for regular membership – though a half dozen are affiliated members. The latter include the Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) and Pulse Canada. GFO is the sole crop-farmer rep on SAI’s Farmer and Supplier Partnership Committee. Thanks to GFO for ensuring there is some farmer input.

Despite GFO efforts, SAI’s Farm Sustainability Assessment 2.0 is still highly superficial and reflects what one might expect from a group weak in farm expertise. For example, the one question on soil erosion is “Do you take measures to avoid soil erosion?” There are only two other questions about soil management. By contrast, there are lots of questions about treatment of farm labour and labour organizations. One example: “Do you ensure that the effective functioning of labor organizations is not opposed?” Check for yourself here (On-line tool or down-loadable Excel file).


While I have featured SAI above, this organization is far from unique among sustainable agricultural initiatives in its membership or approach. Many of them seem more reflective of the agendas of activist groups, compared to farmer experience.

It’s true that there are good examples – particularly for individual companies and specific commodity sectors – where farm groups are larger partners in developing standards for sustainability. One example is the international certification developed by McCain Foods for potatoes which is based in large part on Environmental Farm Plan protocols developed by Canadian farm groups. Another example is McDonald’s commitment to work with beef farmers (more specifically, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association) in designing standards for purchases of sustainable beef. There are many other examples, most of which I am likely not even aware. But there are also cases of where farmer input appears to have been essentially zero – a high-profile one being policies of A&W for purchases of beef and chicken. (Statements about hormone-free chickens in A&W promotions are likely even in violation of Canadian advertizing rules in that use of hormone treatments has been prohibited for all Canadian chickens for decades.)

Some farm/agricultural groups are responding by collecting and presenting data on how they have improved, collectively, in various measures of sustainability. The Field to Market initiative of several major crop groups and industry partners in the United States is a great example.

The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops is trying to emulate this approach which is helpful and to be applauded, though I do have personal doubts that it, by itself, will satisfy the future demands of food companies seeking third-party certification of compliance with standards for sustainability.


As farmers, we prosper by providing what the customer wants. And if the customer wants (and will pay for) farm produce which meets specified protocols – then that’s what we’ll grow. That’s why, for example, many Canadian soybean farmers grow “IP” soybeans (IP = “identity-preserved,” generally this mostly means non-GM [genetically modified] for glyphosate tolerance). It’s not because most farmers consider non-GM to be more sustainable (arguably it’s the reverse, given the additional need for more herbicides with IP production). Farmers do this because of the price premiums.

It’s the same for the white beans (also called navy or pea beans) which we grow on our farm – largely for export sale to the UK. We take extreme cautions to avoid blending beans with GM-based soy and corn grains, and are careful to avoid pesticide residues, but there is nothing in company-directed protocols about how many times I can till the soil or about number of pesticide applications (i.e., beyond pesticide-label specifications). Meeting market specifications is not necessarily the same as sustainable agriculture.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that this approach is working for large food companies, at least in terms of their public images and in minimizing condemnation by activist groups. Reduced activist criticism of late for Walmart and McDonalds, despite their global marketplace domination, probably stems in part to their commitments to sustainable development. This is especially so for Walmart which has an Environmental Defence Fund staffer located right at its head office. Unilever has had success in deflecting attacks on its dominance in world vegetable oil purchases through leadership in sustainable palm oil production. Even Nestlé, known for its stature in marketing bottled water and for recent fines for mistreatment of workers, has also enjoyed some success.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that farmers and farming have benefited that much from this high-profile attention by large companies – especially where their focus is on protocols perhaps marginally related to real on-farm sustainability.

Publicly, current efforts are often portrayed as Big Food’s commitment to sustainable development – with farmers being portrayed as those needing guidance by food companies on ‘how to do things better,’ rather than as leaders in sustainability themselves.


This is so unfortunate in that farmers – individually, collectively and in partnership with agricultural industry partners – have been leaders in environmental improvement for many years. This is true in Canada, for sure, and in other countries too. Take no tillage crop production, as one example, started by farmers in both Canada and the United States. (Credit also goes to public researchers and extension personnel who helped in promotion and the underlying science and to industry for improved field machinery and providing better herbicides and crop genetics to facilitate the transition).

Or take Canadian Environmental Farm Plans, started by farm groups in Ontario, and now adopted by tens of thousands of farmers nationally. Or farm-user pesticide certification requirements instituted in Ontario on the insistence of farm groups. (Ontario environment officials were initially very opposed.) More recent examples include ‘precision agriculture’ technology where application rates of pesticides and fertilizer are varied within individual fields in response to micro-scale needs. Bt (GM) technology has limited insecticide usage substantially for corn and cotton. The list of contributions to sustainable agriculture is lengthy.

Unfortunately, on-farm activities and past achievements are not enough by themselves. Farm groups need to do a better in explaining to the public and urban-based decision makers their commitment to sustainable development, what they stand for, what they are now doing, and what they are going to doing better. Farmers are tired of being dismissed by urban media and many decision-makers as simply uninformed/uneducated pawns of big business, especially on issues such as the wise use of pesticides and fertilizer, crop genetics, soil conservation and good business management.

It is easy to blame others, but much of the fault lies with us. Walmart, Unilever, McDonald’s and others are doing a good job in explaining their commitments to sustainability. For most farm groups – not so much.

It’s true that Canadian agriculture has some major efforts dedicated to ag awareness. Farm & Food Care and ‘agriculture in the classroom’ organizations come to mind immediately. But on agricultural sustainability per se, the efforts are generally on a smaller scale, and usually on a commodity- (or commodity-sector-) specific basis. We need to do it better collectively across-all-sectors.

The ideal would be to do this nationally, but in a country as large and diverse as Canada that may not be realistic. Probably it’s more achievable on a provincial or regional basis. And in no place in Canada is this more important than in Ontario with its large, dominant urban population and urban-centric media. Most Ontarians and Ontario media know virtually nothing about agriculture – or even about nutrition and food – and the current Ontario government consists almost entirely of urban-based legislators.

I don’t think it is necessary to ‘reinvent the wheel’ for much of this process. We have in place many valuable and effective programs directly related to agricultural sustainability. Some have been mentioned above. Others include new programs for enhanced animal welfare and transportation, soil conservation, nutrient and water management, and recycling. We can also build on the good relationships which exist both among agricultural groups and with the Ontario/Canadian food industry.


What we lack is a coordinated manner for tying this all together in a highly visible process – i.e. visible outside the agriculture and food sector itself, and involving all major farm sectors. To cite but one example of a deficiency, consider the Ontario Environmental Farm Plan program. It has been in place for more than 20 years, with more than 30,000 participating farmers – probably representing more than 90% of Ontario agricultural production. A huge achievement. Unfortunately informal surveying indicates few urbanites, or even many food company executives, have ever heard of it.

To repeat: We need a high-profile, common program for saying what we stand for, what we are already doing, and how we are committed to doing better.

The “committed to doing better” is critical, for there are areas where we can and must do better. One of these is climate change and net greenhouse gas emissions. The public and governments have identified this as a priority and yet the subject is largely missing from Environmental Farm Plan processes. We must do a better job of keeping our N and P fertilizer ingredients out of rivers and lakes. We need to include economic sustainability – a key pillar in the fundamentals of sustainable development spelled out in the Bruntland UN Commission report three decades ago. This means economic sustainability not just for farm families but for the neediest among those we feed. Closely linked is the third pillar, social sustainability. Our track record on farm safety is not that great, and perhaps we can do even better with farm employees and in service to communities.

I close this column with the same thought as in the one written two years earlier: Farmers have two choices in the rapidly advancing realm of agri-food sustainability. We can lead or be led. At the moment, it’s too way much of the latter.

What Corn-Canola Comparisons Tell us about Neonics and Bees – Plenty Actually

Corn-Canola Comparisons: Neonic-Bee Problem Likely Unrelated to Pollen or Soil Residues

Corn in flower

Corn in flower

Canola in flower. Credit: Brian Hall, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

Canola in flower. Credit: Brian Hall, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food


“Why are there problems for bees associated with the growing corn but not canola, when both are planted using neonic-treated seed?” A great question: asked from the floor during a recent Pollination Guelph panel discussion of which I was a part.

The question brought everything into focus.

The implied assumption – more bee problems with corn versus canola – is quite well supported. Although 70-80% of Canadian neonic seed treatment occurs in Western Canada, mostly with canola, the complaints about neonic-linked bee deaths are almost all from Ontario and Quebec where corn is more dominant. And while much of the anti-neonic outcry in Central Canada does come from traditional anti-pesticide voices, data such as that provided by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency do show linkages among corn, neonics and bee health, at least for some beekeepers.

Jim Coneybeare, a vice president of the Ontario Bee Association, told a major Farm & Food Care meeting last September that his bees thrive when making honey from canola (almost certainly grown from neonic-treated seed) but do poorly near corn and soybeans.

There is one obvious difference: While canola is an excellent source of nectar and pollen for bees (bees love canola) corn is the reverse. This wind-pollinated species produces no nectar and experts say bees forage it for high-protein pollen only if there are no better choices. Bees don’t much like corn and tend to avoid it. If you locate a few hives near corn fields, there are usually enough wild flowers nearby in fence rows and non-cropped lands to service the bees. But if you place many dozens of hives surrounded by corn, they’ll be malnourished. I’ve likened it to shopping for food supplies at Home Depot. (Canola is more like Walmart.)

Soybeans, a self-pollinating crop, are also a very poor source of nectar and pollen.

But on to the specific links with neonic seed treatments, where the corn-canola comparison is also highly informative: The rate of neonic application per hectare is virtually the same with the two crops and, according to available data summarized by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the percent uptake by plants grown from treated seed is also similar. (Some anti-neonic advocates in Ontario have claimed uptake is four times greater with corn, listing their source as Dr. Christy Morrissey, University of Saskatchewan. But the underlying scientific paper provided to me by Dr. Morrissey (Sur and Stork, 2003) contains no such comparison.)

Hence, soil seeded to canola gets the same amount of neonic added annually as does soil seeded to corn. And rate of neonic breakdown should be no faster in canola-seeded Prairie fields than in those planted to corn in Ontario/Quebec. Indeed, breakdown should be slower in Western Canada because of lower average temperatures and less rainfall. If residual neonic in soil is a critical contributor to bee deaths as some, including Dr. Morrissey, claim, then we should hear as many complaints about bee deaths from canola as from corn – or maybe even more so. But we don’t. Almost all complaints to Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency come from Ontario and Quebec.

Dr. Morrissey has garnered attention with a recent paper in Plos One (http://goo.gl/uJWOHr) focussing on neonic levels in Prairie sloughs (ponds within farm fields) but the data are not that convincing. When the measured concentrations are only a few parts per trillion, you can find almost anything anywhere. Morrissey’s data show neonic-in-water levels about the same magnitude as that for caffeine in the Great Lakes. In Quebec, Dr. Fournier reported elevated neonic levels at or above LD50 levels for bees in some surface waters, but subsequent calculations show she overestimated the risk to bees by at least a 20-fold factor.

So, if it’s not the soil, what about the pollen, especially given the claims by some beekeepers and anti-pesticide advocates that neonics in corn pollen are a critical cause of bee mortality?

In fact, the EFSA has looked at this in detail with some fairly detailed calculations of the daily uptake of worker bees foraging on corn and canola (called ‘oilseed rape,’ or OSR, in Europe). The concentration of neonics in pollen is about the same in corn and OSR, but of course corn has no nectar. The total amount of neonic gathered per day from nectar and pollen was estimated at least 10 times greater with OSR than corn (http://goo.gl/VVCqxF, http://goo.gl/kj5njU). In all cases, the amount of daily uptake from either flowers of corn or OSR was judged to be very minute.

Back to Canada, if neonic in pollen is a notable source of bee deaths, the problem should be much worse with canola than corn. But Jim Coneybeare’s bees thrive near canola fields. And Cutler and Scott-Dupree at the University of Guelph, in some detailed and extensive trials involving bees hives positioned within canola fields grown from treated seed, found no evidence of negative effects on bees (http://goo.gl/fvBSTu).

So that leads us to the one notable difference in neonic exposure between treated corn and canola – different planting technology – notably in the widespread use of vacuum pneumatic planters for seeding corn, though not for canola. On this, the evidence is quite clear, both in North American and European research (see EFSA links provided above for the latter): more neonic-laden dust from these corn planters can mean a greater risk of acute bee exposure at planting time. European research also shows that with proper planter modifications – notably, the release of planter exhaust dust at ground level and at a low air speed – 90%+ of the emission release into the surrounding air can be eliminated.

Bottom line: If we can get rid of the dust emission with corn planting – different planter design, better adherence of neonic treatment to seed, exhaust emission at the soil surface at slow speed – we should go most of the way in solving that portion of bee mortality associated with neonic usage in field crop agriculture.

That will leave the bee industry to deal with much bigger problems like bee pathogens, viruses (up to 100% of Ontario bees may be affected according to one unpublished survey), and proper nutrition. The latter or combinations involving  pathogens/disease, poor nutrition and severe weather is why over-winter bee mortality has been exceptionally high in Ontario this year. And if beekeepers are looking to nourish, not starve, their bee colonies, don’t locate them near corn fields.

For those looking for a single, highly readable review covering all aspects of this neonic-bee issue with an international (including Canadian) perspective, I highly recommend this report, http://goo.gl/t3tDBC, from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. Here’s another great review especially on effects of long-term, ‘sub-lethal’ exposure by Fairbrother et al (2014), http://goo.gl/NywA8T.

Roots – The Secret to Record Corn Yields

Corn roots (Credit Blendspace.com)

Corn roots (Credit Blendspace.com)

I’ve long been fascinated by corn yield and did my Masters and PhD research on this subject. The physiology of corn yield was a prime research interest during my former academic career in Crop Science at the University of Guelph.

Most of the research on yield has featured above-ground plant parts – eg. higher and sustained rates of leaf photosynthesis, canopy morphology, timing of pollen shed and silk emergence, and higher harvest index (portion of above-ground dry matter in the grain at harvest). All of these are highly important. Improvements achieved both genetically and agronomically have meant that 300 bushels/acre (19t/ha) is now a realistic goal for some farmers, and 450 bu/acre (28t/ha) has been exceeded.

During my tenure in Crop Science, I became increasingly interested in the role of corn roots and their interactions with soil. This was triggered, in part, by another personal research interest, soil tillage – and part by some anecdotal observations and quasi-research findings which were difficult/impossible to explain by conventional crop physiology.

My career in research ended when I became full-time chief of staff for the Ontario Corn Producers’ Association in 1985. I did return briefly to the University of Guelph as adjunct professor in 2002, hoping I could pursue my interest in corn roots. But the system had changed: there were new (justifiable) charges for the use of almost anything – greenhouse bench space or whatever – and I had no enthusiasm for resuming the ‘chase for research dollars’ which I had left years before. So I did a lot of reading (actually relatively little literature on corn roots), and ultimately returned to more non-academic activities including increased attention to our family farm business.

It’s obvious that further research on corn roots is no longer in my future, but the fascination remains. I’ll spell out below why and how I think roots are so critical to superior yields. Maybe others will pick up the challenge.

Case 1. During our initial 24 years of farming, my wife and I harvested corn with an old-style picker, carefully screening out loose corn kernels as the ears went up a conveyor elevator into the corn crib. The loose kernels fell onto the ground a few metres from the crib, year-by-year adding to the soil organic matter in a band parallelling the crib.

Eventually I noticed that the corn grown in this strip grew and developed much more quickly than did nearby plants. It silked about a week earlier, was much taller and yielded more. Initially, I assumed this was somehow a wind-barrier/warm-temperature effect. But one year the crib was not filled and the effect continued. It was not caused by warmer soil temperature since the soil in the favoured strip was wetter and likely colder. And it was not caused by higher fertility or better weed control. The only obvious explanation: higher soil organic matter meant a significantly higher rate of both growth and development in independent of temperature. We have not cribbed corn now for 18 years and the effect has largely disappeared. I suppose much of that organic matter has been oxidized, or spread elsewhere by tillage implements.

Case 2. Nigel Fairey was my PhD student from 1972 to 1976 and his research project involved studying C14 labelled assimilate movement within developing corn plants. He grew corn plants outdoors but seeded in buried 22-litre perforated containers containing a granular baked-clay medium called ‘Turface,’ plus nutrient culture. Nigel also planted corn in the soil around the pots so that the treated plants would behave as if in a normal corn stand. One of his problems was that the corn plants in Turface grew and developed much more quickly than their neighbours. They silked 10 days earlier. The reason was unknown. Nigel checked and it was not differences in root-zone temperature. He solved the problem in year two by planting the bordering plants two weeks ahead of those in the pails. He got the data he needed, graduated and moved on to a productive career. But the puzzle of the accelerated growth remained.

Corn roots (Credit: Dr. Amélie Gaudin, Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph

Corn roots (Credit: Dr. Amélie Gaudin, Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph

Case 3. In the late 1970s, I filled a large growth-room bench with corn grown in perforated pails containing Turface and regularly replenished nutrient solution. The plant density was high, about 10/m2 (equivalent to 100,000/ha) as I recall, and I recorded a yield (border plants near the bench edge not harvested) of nearly 200 bushels/acre. This was despite the fact the amount of daily visible radiation to which those plants were exposed was only about 20% of what field-grown plants would receive outdoors on a clear sunny day in mid July. This was back in an era when we struggled to grow 100 bu/acre on the Daynard farm.

Case 4. In the mid 1980s, Dr. Madhava Reddy, a post-doctorate, grew corn plants indoors, suspended in pails containing aerated nutrient solution (no Turface), with half of them being subjected to a weekly regime of partial root tip removal using fingernail clippers. This was only a preliminary trial but the results showed a much slower rate of foliar growth and development for the tip-clipped plants despite the ample supply of nutrients, water and nutrients. The roots were obviously ‘annoyed,’ and this affected foliar growth and development in unknown ways. Both Madhava and I left U Guelph soon after so the work was not continued.

Case 5 is more generic and involves the generally better rates of growth and development, and grain yield I and others see with corn grown in well-manured fields. Our neighbours, the Dupasquiers, grew great crops when they had dairy cattle manure to spread. Now with chicken manure, the crops are simply superb. I am also intrigued at how many high yield reports elsewhere are associated with ample applications of manure, especially poultry manure.

So what’s going on here? Higher soil organic matter (manure addition, kernels dropping beside our corn crib) obviously has advantages in increasing available water storage and that will increase yield in most years. Nutrients from manure are also important, though that should not have been a yield factor in the cases listed above. The boost came using the biologically inert Turface as well as organic matter. The effect on rate of development is of special interest to me as I had long believed that heat accumulation to be the primary driver of rate of development (as compared to rate of growth – plant height, for example). But in some of the cases described above, above-ground rate plant development was affected by the root environment via some mechanism apparently independent of temperature – and sometimes in a dramatic way.

Plant physiologists know that stressed roots send chemical/hormonal signals to above ground parts which cause various physiological responses including reduced rates of growth. Abscissic acid is a key hormonal messenger of this type and there are others.

But are there positive signals which roots send upward when they are essentially stress free? Signals which say the biological equivalent of “put the pedal to the metal”? Signals which will tell the plant to grow and develop more quickly, set more kernels, even more ears? And maybe which stimulate increases in rates of photosynthesis?

In the months I spent as an adjunct professor, I spent much of my time in the library and on line, looking for published evidence of a “good times” hormonal signal – sadly, without success. Perhaps that’s because it’s hard to find, or perhaps no one has looked. Or perhaps the positive signal is simply the absence of stress-signal messengers.

If it’s the latter, perhaps the “brakes” are almost always on, at least in part, for real-world corn plants. That’s a good thing for plants to survive in the normal world. But it’s not so good if the goal is record high yields.

I recall an experiment performed by the late Bev Kay in Land Resource Science at Guelph, who grew young corn plants in stable soil aggregates (from a field growing red clover) of various size categories. Plants grew more quickly in soil consisting of fine aggregates (about 0.5 to 1 mm in diameter, as I recall) than with larger aggregates, and this was an effect independent of fertility or moisture supply.

In checking the roots, Bev and his team found something intriguing: Corn roots in the finely aggregated soil grew straight. Those in larger-sized aggregates were wiggly. With smaller aggregates, the soil appeared to move out of the way as the roots lengthened. With larger aggregates the roots had to grow around.

And that’s when, and why, I developed a (now long-held) hypothesis: Plant roots like to grow unimpeded without needing to turn or grow around anything. Perhaps each turn or impediment triggers a negative signal. “We’re not sure what we’re encountering here,” say the root tips to the rest of the plant, “but better you’d slow up a bit – just in case it is bad or gets worse.”

Farmers all know that compaction hurts yield. The most obvious means is by restricting root growth and access into areas of the soil containing needed water or nutrients, or by impeding water and air flow. But perhaps it also reduces yield just by impeding root growth itself, even if water, air, and nutrient supplies are fine.

How much it yields depends so much on the roots

How much it yields depends so much on the roots

My wife is an excellent gardener, outdoors and in, and she regularly has to repot plants into larger pots or else they won’t grow and flower as they should. These plants are well watered and well fertilized, but still they do poorly when “root bound.” And what does root bound mean? Roots which are constantly running into each other or the container walls, and can only grow by turning – growing around things.

Or consider Bonsai plant cultivation with trees permanently dwarfed by restricted root growth.

Ontario farmer Dean Glenney at Dunnville Ontario has produced some really high corn yields and he plants his corn and soybeans in the same row positions year after year. He says that roots can grow easily down existing root channels. This fits my conjecture well. I’ve not met Dean personally, but understand that he also uses lots of poultry manure. The manure will also be great for reducing soil density and strength, making it easier for roots to grow unimpeded.

Old root channels may be one of the biggest benefits for cover crops, i.e., in addition to drainage and aeration benefits – provided, of course, that these channels aren’t destroyed by subsequent tillage and heavy equipment tramping on wet soils.

My hypothesis is that unimpeded root growth is highly important for top corn performance – independent of any effect on providing soil moisture or nutrients. (Not that the latter aren’t also highly important.)

It’s an untested hypothesis. I’ve spent hours thinking about ways to test this. Dr. Amélie Gaudin completed a PhD thesis recently in Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph, growing corn plants aerobically with roots dangling in a mist of nutrient solution. Her study was about genetic differences between corn and ancestral teosinte, but maybe the same system could be used to study the effects of impediments to root growth independent of water, nutrient and air supply. The challenge would be to introduce barriers/impediments in such a way that they force roots to bend around obstacles but don’t lead to stressful oxygen deprivation. Maybe there are other creative ways to test my conjecture.

To close: I’ve no proof – nothing would stand up to good peer reviewing – only a collection of anecdotal and quasi-research results pointing in a certain direction. But if you really want to be the farmer who breaks above 500-bu/acre corn yield – or even 50 bu/acre better than what you’re doing today, figure out how to encourage unimpeded root growth. And if you can sort out how to do this in a cost-effective manner (not everyone has huge poultry manure supplies, and Turface is way too expensive), you could become a very wealthy person.

A Primer on Ontario Cropping and Tillage Systems

A European acquaintance quizzed me recently about crop rotation and tillage practices for major crops in Ontario. I’ve prepared the following. And, since it might be also of interest to others too, I am posting it on the web. This is a very simplified overview of Ontario cropping systems. Readers should recognize that each farmer does things somewhat differently, and farming practices continue to evolve quickly.

The principal field crops in Ontario are corn, soybeans and perennial forages – about 2 million+ acres of each. This column is mainly about corn and soybeans, and also wheat which is grown on about 1 million acres – and mainly about those farmers who are primarily grain growers. Perennial forages are mostly grown by farmers who raise cattle, sheep, goats and horses.

Although corn has been grown by Ontario farmers since about 500 AD, its production by farmers of European origins did not really become dominant across most of Southern Ontario until the 1960s following the introduction of better-quality, early-maturing hybrids. After that, Ontario agriculture experienced a period of about 15-20 years when many farmers grew only corn. This, coupled with intensive tillage which buries all crop residues after harvest, resulted in some serious soil erosion and other soil structural and insect/disease problems. The soil problems were worse when the entire above-ground plant was harvested to make ‘corn silage.’ (Corn silage once represented up to half of Ontario corn acreage; it’s about 10% now – usually on dairy and beef farms which also have soil-building perennial crops in their rotations.)

Figure 1. Corn crop residue protecting soil from rain and snow-melt run-off in early spring (Daynard farm)

Figure 1. Corn crop residue protecting soil from rain and snow-melt run-off in early spring (Daynard farm)

Soybeans have been grown in extreme southwestern Ontario (warmest part of the province) since the early 1900s. Production blossomed across the rest of Southern Ontario during the 1980s. This was because of the availability of better early-maturing varieties and the need for a profitable cropping alternative to break the pattern of continuous corn production. (This is sometimes called ‘mono-cropping,’ though ‘mono-cropping’ can have other meanings too and is an ambiguous term).

Figure 2. No-till soybeans in corn residue (credit: Patrick Lynch.)

Figure 2. No-till soybeans in corn residue (credit: Patrick Lynch.)

Many Ontario grain farmers add a third crop to the rotation – fall-seeded wheat, which is commonly called winter wheat. While wheat is usually not as profitable a ‘cash crop’ as corn and soybeans, farmers grow wheat because it spreads out their annual work load, provides diversity and stability (weather-vulnerable growth stages for wheat occur at different times of the year than for corn and soybeans), and because research data have shown that corn yields benefit significantly from having wheat in the rotation. (Wheat has a fine root structure which contrasts with the generally coarser roots of corn.) Wheat also represents an over-winter cover crop, to help limit soil erosion in early spring runoff (lots of water runs off the soil surface because of melting snow and rainfall).

Figure 3. No-till wheat emerging from under snow after winter. Corn stalks are from two years earlier. (Daynard farm)

Figure 3. No-till wheat emerging from under snow after winter. Corn stalks are from two years earlier. (Daynard farm)

Corn rootworm larvae are commonly a serious problem when corn follows corn. This necessitates the use of insecticides or the use of Bt-corn-rootworm-resistant corn hybrids. Corn rootworm has also become a problem in corn-soybean rotations in the United States. However, the problem does not occur with corn-soybean-wheat rotations.

Farmers are concerned about protecting their soil from erosion (primarily water erosion in Ontario), and in maintaining/improving soil organic matter levels and soil structure. Good soil structure makes root growth easier and facilitates internal water and air movement.

Reduced soil tillage (often this means no tillage at all except for the possible preparation of a very small mini ‘seed bed’ right around the planted seed) is one means of doing that. It also reduces the cost of farming (less equipment, less time for field operations, and less fuel usage). Corn crop residues are especially valuable for protecting soil from erosion (i.e., if left on the surface and not plowed under). This is because of both their high quantity (about 9 tonnes/ha for a good average corn crop) and their slow rate of decomposition. They can stick around on the soil surface for 2-3 years.

Figure 4. Soybeans planted into tilled strip (credit: Ken Brett)

Figure 4. Soybeans planted into tilled strip (credit: Ken Brett)

By contrast, soybean crop residues decompose quite quickly after harvest time and in the following spring. This is one reason why farmers commonly plant winter wheat immediately after soybean harvest to protect the soil surface.
Winter wheat presents its own soil problems – mainly because it is harvested during midsummer (commonly in July), leaving the soil surface ‘unprotected’ for many months to follow. Wheat straw residue helps. But, at least in North America, it is not as plentiful as what remains after corn. Many farmers plant special cover crop species. The most common is red clover for which the seed is spread on winter wheat fields in early spring. This allows red clover plants to germinate and then subsist until the wheat is harvested; after harvest they usually flourish until growth stops with the arrival of colder weather in October. Red clover cover crops protect the soil surface from erosion while adding soil organic matter and nitrogen fertility (red clover is a legume). The crop which follows wheat/red-clover is usually corn.

Some farmers will plant other cover-crop species after the wheat is harvested, usually using ‘no-till’ seeders for reasons of speed and minimal soil disturbance.

Figure 5. Strip tillage & fertilization in bean residue (credit: Patrick Lynch)

Figure 5. Strip tillage & fertilization in bean residue (credit: Patrick Lynch)

Early spring planting presents some challenges – and a need for compromise. Complete surface coverage is best for erosion control but it can mean slower drying of soil in spring. (Most Ontario soils begin each spring fully saturated with water, because of late-autumn and early-spring rainfall, and snow melt.) This is a special problem for corn which generally yields best when planted early. This is especially true for slow-drying clay soils. If residue coverage is really dense, some farmers will try to incorporate some residue into the soil with autumn tillage. Some farmers use strip tillage equipment to work a narrow strip (either in the fall, or a day or two before spring planting), thus allowing soil in the strip to dry out faster to permit early planting. If soil is planted when too wet, it ‘smears’ during planting operations and this can have a very negative effect on corn seedling growth and final yield.
GPS technology allows farms to plant corn into the centre of the tilled strips.

Figure 6. No-till corn plant in wheat residue (credit: Paul Sullivan, P.T. Sullivan Agro Inc)

Figure 6. No-till corn plant in wheat residue (credit: Paul Sullivan, P.T. Sullivan Agro Inc)

In addition most no-till planters have attachments which move residues a few cm to either side of the planted row. This permits sunshine penetration to the soil above the planted seed, and quicker germination. In some countries (notably north-western Europe), garden slugs will flourish with abundant soil surface organic matter coverage. Slugs eat the emerging crop plants. This is occasionally a problem in Ontario too.

Figure 7. Red clover after spring seeding into wheat in spring (credit: Patrick Lynch)

Figure 7. Red clover after spring seeding into wheat in spring (credit: Patrick Lynch)

Emerging plants in springtime in Ontario are also vulnerable to occasional late frosts, and this risk is magnified with lots of soil residue cover. It’s a trade off, with most farmers considering that the increased risk of frost damage is more than off-set by better soil quality and higher yields with ample soil residue cover, over a period of years.

Pest control is very important to the success of reduced and no-till cropping programs which allow for the abundant presence of soil surface residues. Fungicide and (usually) insecticide treatments are generally needed to protect planted seeds and emerging seedlings from diseases and insects which flourish in conditions of cool, damp soil and surface residue cover. Herbicides are needed for the weed control which was traditionally done by soil tillage. Organic farmers, who cannot use synthetic pesticides, often counter these insect and disease challenges by planting a little later and by using tillage implements for weed control which penetrate the soil only shallowly. While a few organic farmers and researchers are currently exploring options for the elimination of tillage, no-till organic farming remains largely unknown.

Figure 8. No-till corn into soybean residue (Credit: Paul Sullivan, P.T. Sullivan Agro Inc)

Figure 8. Corn planted into soybean residue after conservation (minimal)  tillage (Credit: Paul Sullivan, P.T. Sullivan Agro Inc)



Comments on the 2014 Guelph Organic Conference

I attended the Guelph Organic Conference at the University of Guelph on Saturday February 1, 2014. Jodi Koberinski, executive director of the Organic Council of Ontario, asked for my observations on the conference. Here are some:

1.       Based on the large attendance (500+) and large number of exhibitors (170) this event must be judged a major success. If the weather had not been so nasty on the Saturday of the conference, the attendance would undoubtedly have been even higher.

2.       In some ways it resembles the Ontario Plowing Match with many exhibitors selling/promoting just about anything and everything. However, the speaking program is much more important at the Guelph Organic Conference.

3.       Both the audience and the exhibitors were highly diverse and included: profit-oriented farmers (a distinct minority, I believe), farm suppliers and farm produce buyers, organic food wholesalers and retailers, organic farm certifiers, book and publication marketers, educational/research institutions, advocacy and farm groups, some snake oil and trinket sales people, students, and a large number of gardeners and homeowners. My guess is that gardeners, homeowners and the exhibitors themselves represented the largest percentage of the conference attendees.

4.       I could only attend a few of the speaker presentations since several of these occurred simultaneously. I am relying on written summaries of presentations I did not attend for some of my observations. In my opinion, the presentations ranged from outstanding to really weird – at least from a perspective of someone like me with a science and farm background. At one extreme was Essex County organic farmer, Roger Rivest, presenting excellent information on how to control pests (chiefly weeds) in organic farming. On the other hand, there was an organic consultant recommending phosphate soil fertility levels which were extremely (irresponsibly high in my view, 100 ppm phosphate if I heard him right) and telling the audience that 1) the sugar from GM sugar beets is less healthy than that from non-GM beets (100% sucrose in both cases) and 2) they should promote unpasteurized milk.

There was an excellent session on organic certification standards in Canada, the US and Europe, one of the best I’ve ever attended. And a hokey one on soil quality telling the audience how to tell soil pH by its physical appearance. There was a good session on the organic dairy research program at U of Guelph’s Alfred campus. But another speaker told listeners that plants derived using radiation mutagenesis are radioactive, and that corn evolved pretty much naturally up until the 19th century. (She’s probably never heard of teosinte.)

5.       I felt sorry for attendees lacking backgrounds in science and agriculture but genuinely seeking good information on how to farm organically profitably, or be better gardeners, or on how to feed their families. The conference provided a mish-mash of information and misinformation – with no guidebook for telling one from the other. Better quality control in choosing speakers for the conference in 2015 might help – if indeed that’s possible. It may not be: The organic industry seems to be a marriage of convenience between those truly wanting to produce food in a sustainable way (i.e., sustainability as defined by the original Bruntland Commission), and those who are more interested in anti-corporate/anti-modern-agriculture advocacy. The two are not the same, and the conference seems to be designed to appeal to both.

5.       The conference has obviously outgrown its space availability for exhibitors, jamming 170 exhibits into two moderate-sized rooms plus corridors – and with everyone squeezed together like sardines. By contrast, the speaker sessions did not seem to be that full – though, as noted above, bad weather was a factor. With better weather, the U of Guelph facility would have been completely swamped.

6.       I think the organizers need to do a better job in organizing that portion of the conference (program and exhibitor formatting) designed for serious organic farmers. In fairness, one section of the Saturday speakers’ program was more dedicated to farmers (done very well in 2013, not so well in 2014), but exhibits related to farmer needs are all mixed in with the other retail and consumer-interest displays, and sort of get lost. Maybe they need a dedicated space for farmer-oriented displays, ideally linked to a setting where serious farmers could meet each other and talk about common problems and solutions.

Or maybe there needs to be an entirely different event for organic farmers – perhaps like the Innovative Farmers of Ontario convention.

At one ‘farmer oriented’ session on February 1, the speaker quizzed his audience as to the size of their farming/gardening operations. The majority were under 2 acres in size. Probably less than 12 were over 400 acres. I know that high gross and net returns are possible for very specialized production on very small acreages (eg., greenhouses), but for this audience, I believe that under 2 acres mostly meant gardeners.

Organic farming is difficult. If profitability was easier and there was more of it, the province would not be such a large importer of organic foods and food-ingredients. Better catering to farmer needs would be a good thing.

John Morriss: Different this Time —- Again

For some time I’ve been planning to write a column about how the global grain market is returning to the state of burdensome or near-burdensome supply which has been predominant for most years since about 1950 – notwithstanding so-called ‘expert’ opinion that this time it is “really different.” I remember hearing the same words from about 1973 through 1981, and then experiencing first-hand the price depression and damaging effects which occurred for both developed and developing world farmers during most of the 25 years which followed. Then I saw this recent editorial written by John Morriss, Associate Publisher/Editorial Director of the Manitoba Cooperator which said exactly what I wanted to say. So with his permission, I am republishing his column here. The only change I would make is that his reference should be to all Canadian grain farmers. Thanks, John.

The original column is at http://www.manitobacooperator.ca/2014/01/23/different-this-time-again/


Different this Time —Again

This line in a Reuters story last week certainly put things in focus. “Ukraine is likely to be the world’s second-largest grain exporter in the 2013-14 season with the shipment of more than 30 million tonnes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

We’d seen the figures before, but considering that Ukraine and its former Soviet partners used to be Canada’s largest grain customer, putting it that way still comes as a bit of a jolt. At times in the 1980s, the Former Soviet Union was importing 50 million tonnes of grain a year. This year it will export that much.

The FSU’s massive entry into the world market and the “Great Grain Robbery” of 1972 sparked a price rise to unprecedented levels. The wheat price of $6 per bushel then equalled $27 today. The resulting prosperity sparked much optimism that good times were finally here, and here to stay. It was “different this time.”

Well, for a couple of years anyway, and soon things were back in the doldrums, with grain price wars and a series of ad hoc “Special Grains Payments” and programs with four-letter acronyms ­ WGSA, GRIP, NISA, CAIS, etc. The doldrums were periodically interrupted by a short crop somewhere in the world, and then a brief price rally ­ 1980, 1985 1993, 1996, 2006 and then in 2012-13.

During each of those blips we heard this ­ “The world’s population is growing. It’s getting more affluent, so people will eat more meat. They aren’t making any more land.”

All true, to a point. But we’ve been hearing that same line in speeches for 40 years now, and those who were around will remember that in the 1960s and 1970s, the big concern was “feeding the starving millions” in India. That brings us to another bit of news from last week, which is that India’s wheat exports are at 6.5 million tonnes so far for this crop year, and there is plenty of room to export more.

And which country was the world’s largest beef exporter last year? India.

The latest variation on the, “It’s different this time” was that it was “a new paradigm,” accompanied by the statistic we’ve heard so many times in the last couple of years ­ that the world has to double food production to feed nine billion people by 2050. That may or may not be true, but the Indian example shows that part of the goal will be met by countries feeding themselves.

A year ago at this time, crop farmers were in an upbeat mood, with a combination of a big crop and record (nominal) prices. Today, despite a record crop, the atmosphere is subdued at best. As we report this week, and which most farmers had figured out for themselves, Manitoba Agriculture’s production budgets show that the only major crop to “pencil out” this year is winter wheat, and it’s a bit late for that. Meanwhile crop farmers are in a cash flow crunch, with a combination of low prices, slow transportation and a wide basis. Imagine the pickle farmers would be in if they had a small or low-quality crop.

So it wasn’t different this time ­ again, which raises the question of how farmers and the industry should react next time there’s a price spike which gets everyone excited about a “new paradigm.”

That’s a tough one. Those who are asked to give presentations at farm meetings don’t want to be a wet blanket, especially if they have something to sell or money to lend. “Now listen everyone, times are good now, but we know these price spikes always fizzle after a year or two, so you had better keep your money in your jeans.” Who wants to be the one to say that?

And who wants to raise some of the tough questions about where Western Canada fits in supplying future world grain demand? What if U.S. winter wheat yields, currently averaging under 40 bushels per acre, start to approach those in Europe, currently over 100 bushels? What if genetic modification allows European wheat to produce high protein?

Now that most Canadian exports are being handled by the same companies that operate in the Former Soviet Union, U.S., South America and Australia, what are the implications for Western Canada, especially since it has the highest transportation costs?

This is not to say that western Canadian farmers can’t adapt to future challenges, as they have done so well in the past. But they will be able to adapt much better if they have a long-term view which realistically considers their inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Farm organizations. particularly the ones emerging from changes to the wheat board, need to think about this, not just breeding for more yield. “The world is going to take every bushel we can produce” is no basis for an industry strategy. Next time that you hear that it’s different this time, remember ­ it won’t be.

How Can You Tell What “Good” Science Really Says?

This column responds to a good question from an organic agriculture acquaintance. She’s convinced that I am quick to endorse all scientific reports supporting my tech-oriented perspective, while rejecting those supporting hers. “How do you decide what’s right and what’s not?” she exclaimed. Fair question. This is my response.

Though decades have passed since I was an active university researcher (a former professor of crop science, University of Guelph), I still read many research papers and remember well the process for publishing results in a peer-reviewed journal. The process was imperfect: some reviewers were too picky; some not enough. Some journals are much “easier” than others.

But imperfections aside, the system worked quite well. A peer-reviewed article was generally considered credible. “Peer-reviewed” was an assurance of meeting certain standards of quality.

My faith in the system has since weakened. I now read too many scientific papers which I cannot believe made it through a proper peer-reviewer process – papers providing only the sketchiest description of experimental methodology, or limited statistical analysis, or selected data which are clearly cherry-picked, or abstracts and conclusions which extrapolate way beyond that justified by the data. And then there is a flood of new journals emphasizing speed over thoroughness. You pay the money and you get published quickly, especially if your findings are sufficiently sensational to make the national news. Journals and some scientists and their institutions even issue news releases to make sure this happens.

And now we have retractions: peer-reviewed articles are retracted after publication. I never heard of this in my research/publishing days.

I do understand the academic process, which really has not changed much for generations. As a researcher you must publish – to get a permanent job, secure tenure and promotion, have stature, get research grants, and more. And it’s not enough just to publish: you must also be cited. That means you emphasize positive, not negative, results. “Dramatic new findings” are best. And as the number of permanent public research position numbers plateaus or declines, the pressures increase.

In theory, this should mean higher quality. If the potential supply of papers balloons, then raise the standards. Sadly, I don’t think this has happened. There’s too much money in the journal publication business. Perhaps everyone is too busy writing to have time for reviewing the submissions of others. I see a lot of what I consider to be crap – to be blunt – in the form of peer-reviewed publication.

I’ve wondered: Maybe it is just me, an old guy with a too rosy memory of what it was like in days past. But then I recently read an outstanding column in a recent issue of The Economist decrying the same (“Unreliable research: trouble at the lab,” Oct. 19, 2013, http://goo.gl/iE5fha).

And there is the experience of John Bohannon, a biologist at Harvard, who purposely fabricated an entire experiment and research report, making sure that the paper contained obvious flaws – and having it accepted for publication in more than half of the 304 research journals to which it was submitted.

The bar has been lowered: peer-reviewed – while still better than not – is not the same guarantor of quality and credibility as before.

For me in crop agriculture, the most high-profile example of failure is the recently retracted rats-fed-glyphosate-and-GMO-corn paper of Dr. Séralini and colleagues at the Université de Caen. The journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, is (or least was) considered prestigious. The editors ultimately did the right thing – a forced retraction despite the authors’ objection. But serious damage was done – to the stature of GMO technology and well-being of people who could benefit from its usage, to the credibility of the journal, and to science itself.

There are lots more examples still within the realm of agricultural technology: A paper by Carman et al in the obscure Journal of Organic Systems, claiming notable health problems for pigs fed GMO crops, is one. A paper from computer staff at MIT in another obscure journal, Entropy, asserting even larger health problems for humans exposed to the herbicide, glyphosate, is another. Both papers triggered immediate responses from knowledgeable critiques, exposing the obvious flaws, and have been dismissed by most informed scientists. But the fact remains: they were peer-reviewed, not retracted, and continue to be cited publicly as “proof” by those with anti-GMO perspectives.

The retractions aren’t all on one side: Dr. Pamela Ronald, a well-respected geneticist at the University of California (she works on GMO rice) recently retracted her own peer-reviewed paper because she later discovered that some of the data were incorrect. The anti-GMO crowd had a field day praising the retraction, using this to try to undermine Ronald’s credibility – just as they reacted in reverse with the Séralini paper retraction. The difference is that Ronald initiated the retraction herself.

One cannot eliminate personal perspective and bias totally in making judgements as to which scientific papers/reports are credible and which ones are not. I’ve those biases, myself, as does everyone in science. I can counter this by being more receptive to papers which challenge my personal bias, but that’s not being objective either.

So how do you make a judgement? For what it’s worth, here are a few guidelines I use:

1. Are the findings consistent with basic principles, i.e., physical, chemical and (to the extent that we understand them) biological and economic principles?

As an example, I’ve had no problem accepting that an increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide should mean an increase in average global temperature and rainfall. Both are totally consistent with basic physics. I’ve had more problems with statements/conclusions that global climate is becoming more variable as the physical basis seems far less obvious. (Working Group I of the International Panel on Climate Change seems to have the same problem.)

2. Is the statistical analysis solid? I don’t expect the data in every paper to have been subjected to every possible statistical test – most of which I don’t understand myself – but it is reasonable to expect some reasonable replication and basic analyses of the results.

Another example: A recent paper from Purdue University is being cited everywhere as proof that a category of insecticides is deadly to bees. Its high profile in the journal PLoS One attracted lots of attention. I confess my bias: I don’t believe that these insecticides are the dominant cause of bee colony mortality as the anti-pesticide crowd proclaim. But the paper presented data with few meaningful statistical analysis and included non replicated measurements. How did it pass peer-reviewing?

3. Do results seem consistent with common experience?

Again, the Séralini and Carman papers come to mind. For, if the results presented were correct and applicable to humans, then one should expect to see massive health problems for the billions of people who have eaten GM-based foods. We haven’t.

4. Is there a conflict of interest?

This is commonly raised as a huge concern if the data/publication are linked to industry funding. That’s a legitimate concern. But it applies equally when the work comes from someone with a known agenda/bias of a contrary nature. Is research supported by Monsanto any less credible than that linked to Greenpeace? This does not mean that reported results are automatically wrong, but that they do need to be interpreted with special caution.

One judgement I use is whether the researcher is known for findings which are always one sided – for example, always supportive or negative, on issues such as pesticide safety, GMO technology, increased climatic variability, or hundreds of other controversial issues. If always one-sided, I’m suspicious.

5. Has the work been repeated/verified by independent researchers?

This is a given requirement for the acceptance of almost all research findings. Even when results are reported as being statistically significant at the 95% probability level, that means one chance in 20 of being a random fluke. The potential for inadvertent errors induced by the research technique itself is larger. This has been called the “single study syndrome.” Research findings must be confirmed by other labs before being accepted as “likely true.”

6. Is the researcher well recognized?

This one is problematic as it would seem to discriminate against younger researchers who are often the most brilliant. Perhaps a better criterion is the reciprocal: Is the researcher recognized negatively?

This should have been a red flag with Dr. Séralini – the rat study is not the first time his work has been challenged for objectivity.

But it also works in reverse. I’ve been saddened by the story of Dr. Don Huber, formerly a respected Purdue University pathologist, who in later life has been making incredulous and unsupported claims about a mysterious new organism which renders humans susceptible to a raft of illnesses triggered by glyphosate. Without his (formerly) good reputation, his recent assertions would have been dismissed as quackery well before now.

Of course, these guidelines all work best if you have some scientific experience, which most of the human population lacks. And even with scientific training, my guidelines are not infallible. They would surely have led me, if I was around at the time and into physics, to reject Einstein’s initial paper on relativity – inconsistent with known physical principles or common experience, an unknown researcher, etc. In my defence, most of Einstein’s contemporaries rejected his work initially, as well. (I don’t know if they pushed for a retraction.)

The biggest scientific findings are those which contradict the “well known,” though that’s where and why the need for independent verification is so important. Bear in mind that science can never prove anything to be absolutely true. Einstein’s conclusions were only accepted after they were tested in some now-legendary experiments, and no one can yet say they are absolutely correct more than a century later.

So what’s my advice for those without scientific training? Well points 3, 4 and 5 above still apply. And a healthy degree of skepticism works too. Just because some new research finding gets high-profile attention on the national news does not mean it’s right. In fact, the odds are that it is wrong. The article in The Economist concludes that most research reports are only partially true, at best. Wait at least a few days before drawing any conclusions. A few weeks or months is even better. Wait for the counter perspectives to come out – which, incidentally, are unlikely to be reported in the national news; the Internet and social media are better sources.

Science is wonderful and the basis for a large portion of what we call quality of life. But it can be a big challenge to know just what good science really says. Unfortunately, that challenge is getting bigger. That’s a huge problem for those of us who proclaim, “Trust good science.”

Additional Comments on the Issue of Neonicotinoid Seed Treatments and Bee Mortality

Since posting my early September blog (http://goo.gl/DmqH3N) about neonicotinoid seed treatments and bee mortality, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) of Health Canada has issued a Notice of Intent on “action to protect bees from exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides” (http://goo.gl/Uhg6Vv). The following comments pertain to that notice and a related PMRA report on bee deaths in Ontario and Quebec in 2012, some additional data they’ve collected for 2013, other published research papers/reports, and further discussions with Canadian bee researchers and professionals. 

1.         The PMRA Notice of Intent states that “the majority of pollinator mortalities were a result of exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides, likely through exposure to contaminated dust generated during the planting of treated corn seed.” And it goes on to say, “we have concluded that current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable.” The Notice of Intent seems to be based largely on information contained in a PMRA report entitled, Evaluation of Canadian Bee Mortalities Coinciding with Corn Planting in Spring 2012 (not on web).The 2012 report involves an investigation of reports of bee deaths from 40 beekeepers involving a total of 240 hive locations in Ontario and one report involving eight hive locations in Quebec. 

2.         PMRA tested, for neonic residues, 125 samples of dead and 2 samples of “dozy” bees from 25 affected beekeepers, plus 20 samples of living bees from apparently healthy hives. The sampling occurred sometime after corn planting, but before corn pollination. The PMRA’s finding that 70% of the dead bee samples in Ontario had detectible residues of chlothianidin, while residues were detected in only one “unaffected” bee sample, has received major attention. (Note that clothianidin is the active ingredient in the seed treatment commonly known as ‘Poncho,’ and is also a breakdown product of thiamethoxam, or ‘Cruiser,’ the other commonly used corn seed treatment.) 

3,         An appendix table in the “2012 deaths” report, listing neonic residue levels for the 127 dead- and dozy-bee samples, is of major significance. PMRA states that the 48-hr “NOELs” (No Observable adverse Effect Levels) for clothianidin are 0.0085 (oral exposure) and 0.067 ppm (dermal exposure). NOEL is the minimum exposure level considered to have any negative effect on bees. If it’s contact with neonic-laden dust in air at planting time, dermal would seem like the most likely means of exposure, with oral exposure being more appropriate for neonics in floral nectar and pollen. Importantly, data in the appendix table show that not one of the 127 dead/dozy bee samples had neonic residue concentrations as high as the NOEL dermal level. The highest sample reading was 0.024 ppm. Only 17 of the127 were even at or above 0.0085 ppm. 

In summary, 70% of the dead samples had detectable neonics, but 100% of samples were below NOEL values. 

PMRA’s report says that residue concentrations in dead bees may decline with time, because of bacterial decomposition. Sunshine exposure also breaks neonics down. However, experts in the field say that the rate of decline in dead bees is largely unknown. Hence, it’s not clear whether the amount of neonics in any of the dead bee samples was ever high enough to cause adverse effects to these bees while they were still alive – at least based on available science. 

4.         By contrast, what is well established scientifically is that the rate of breakdown of neonics in living bees is very rapid. I’m told that the half-life for clothianidin in bees is 11 hr, or less. After 3 days, only about 1% of the original exposure remains. It’s no surprise that PMRA did not detect neonics in most living bee samples presumably collected several days after incident reports were submitted. This perspective seems to be missing from both the PMRA 2102 report and Notice of Intent. 

5.         A summary (not published) of 2013 PMRA analyses of neonic levels in dead bees does not give the breakout for individual samples, only the range, which is from 0.001 to 0.071 ppm, with 75% of all dead bee samples having detectable clothianidin. The 0.071 is close to the NOEL dermal limit (0.067 ppm). Hence, one sample out of more than 225 over two years was as high as the minimal level known to harm bees. 

6.         The PMRA’s statistic that 70% of dead bees (and 75% in 2013) had detectable neonic residues has also much to do with the precision of the detection technology. The “limit of quantification” in the PMRA analyses is 0.001 ppm. If it had been 0.01 ppm, the 70% in 2012 would have been 12%. And if the limit of quantification had been 0.000l ppm, the 70% figure would almost certainly been even higher. With sufficiently sensitive technology, given the wide use of neonics in modern society for uses well beyond corn seed treatment, almost 100% of the samples might have been expected to have neonic residues. The critical issue is not whether neonics are detected but whether they are present at levels which are injurious to bees. The 2012 document implies “no.” Preliminary 2013 data say “maybe in one case.” 

7.         PMRA’s identification of soybean seed treatments as a probable cause of bee deaths is most puzzling, especially when the agency goes so far as to say, “agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated … soybean seed are not sustainable.” But PMRA has not presented any direct evidence linking bee deaths to soybean seed treatment. All of the discussion/analysis in its “Evaluation of Canadian Bee Mortalities Coinciding with Corn Planting in Spring 2012″ pertains to corn. Why did they do this? The rationale might have been: ‘if corn seed treatment is bad, then soybean treatment must be bad too’ (scarcely a word said about canola or other crops). 

Or maybe they assumed that soybeans are planted with corn planters with the same practices/problems in dust emissions. While it is true that some soybeans are planted with corn planters, the vast majority of the acreage is planted with equipment more akin to that used for canola. 

8.         Then there’s another enigma: The PMRA document about 2012 bee deaths contains a map showing the location of the 72 bee yards from which samples were analyzed. They are not uniformly distributed across the corn/soybean growing area of Ontario. In fact, about one-third of those yards are in a small pocket near Hanover, (Grey County) Ontario. While corn and soybeans are definitely grown there (canola too), this is not an intensive area of corn and soy production as a map in the PMRA report shows. The other site where a large portion of the samples were collected is Middlesex and East Lambton counties, an area which does grow a lot of corn and soybeans. 

9.         In short, while the PMRA document does make a modest case for bee deaths being caused by corn (though not soybean) neonic seed treatments, the supporting data are far from overwhelming. 

10.       Of interest, also, is an analysis which Cutler et al. (2012, http://goo.gl/9V65oX ) did of PMRA’s “bee incident reports” for pesticide injury during the years 2007 through 2012. There were a total of 110 incident reports filed by Canadian beekeepers, 104 of them in 2012 alone. PMRA divided these incident reports into three categories, minor, moderate and major. Major incidents were defined as having at least 3000 dead bees from each of five or more colonies, or 30% of the bees in any one colony, dead or exhibiting abnormal behavioural effects. Of the 110 incidents, 78 involved neonics or a combination of neonic plus another pesticide. However, only four of the 20 major incidents involved neonics. In fact, five of the major incidents involved exposure to formic acid, an organic miticide that beekeepers apply to colonies to control varroa mites on bees. The formic acid incidents are especially notable for reporting queen bee deaths. Here’s another report linking bee colony mortality to miticide treatments, http://goo.gl/1mTYYg .

 11.       There is another part to this puzzle. Some vocal beekeepers claim that the effect of neonic seed treatment for corn has been a drastic drop in bee numbers in Ontario. However, when presented with data from Statistics Canada showing that colony numbers have actually been increasing at a steady rate in recent years, they say that the critical effect is on over-winter mortality, citing an average of about 35% mortality during the 2012/2013 winter. (Average Canadian mortality has ranged from 15% to 35% since 2006/07 with the highest percentage actually being in 2007/08.) 

But how can an acute effect at corn seeding time in late April-May affect the mortality of bees the next winter? This is especially puzzling given the rapid rate at which neonic chemical are broken down by living bees, as well as being photo-decomposed when exposed to daylight. And with worker bees only living an average of about 40 days, over-winter deaths would involve bees born months after the seeding-time exposure. One explanation might be neonic effects on queen bees which live much longer; however bee experts tell me this is highly unlikely given the filtering which occurs with queen bee feeding. (Queen bees eat “Royal jelly,” a special type of food manufactured by other bees.) Queen bees will also break neonic chemicals down quickly in the unlikely event of significant exposure. 

12.       Re-exposure to neonics later in the growing season is another possibility. “Let’s-ban-neonics” advocates have based their arguments on claims that the agricultural environment is full of neonics and that pollen from plants grown in neonic-containing soils is another cause of deaths. But the supporting evidence seems very weak. In published reports, where neonics have been detected in soil or plant pollen, the concentrations have been far too small to be biologically significant to bees. Bees would have to ingest daily amounts in excess of their body weights to approach the NOEL values referenced above. There is an excellent published report from southern Germany detailing how improper corn seed treatment led to spring-time bee deaths in 2008 (http://goo.gl/6QC3hh). (The amount of in-seed-bag dust per 100,000 seeds was 10 to 100 times higher than acceptable standards.) But even here the amount of chemical in subsequent corn pollen was too low to be significant. 

PMRA checked for neonic residues in Ontario farm soils and water puddles in 2013, with the residue levels being mostly “not detected” or at ultra-low levels. There is a report of neonics in surface water samples in Quebec but details are sketchy. 

In summary, statements that corn neonic seed treatments are responsible for over-wintering bee deaths make no sense, scientifically. 

13.       One big dilemma in policy decisions linked to neonic seed treatments is how to design  Best Management Practices (BMPs) based on PMRA data and policy dictates. The normal response would be to reduce exposure to a pesticide so that residue levels fall well below NOEL values. But we appear to be already there according to 2012 and 2013 PMRA measurements. So what’s the new target – 10% of NOELs, 1% of NOEL, or even lower – knowing that absolute zero is impossible? And if we switch completely to other pesticide products for seed/seedling insect control, what assurance is there that the resultant environmental problem will not be worse. (The reason for going to neonic products to begin with largely involved safety to humans and environment with other compounds.) 

14.       Some work done by Dr. Krupke and colleagues in Indiana is of interest – research results which are often cited as “proof” that neonic seed treatments kill bees. Krupke et al. (2002, http://goo.gl/scBQ9I) reported ultra-high levels of neonics in talc dust collected on the exhaust manifold of their pneumatic corn planter; they and others have used this to emphasize the seriousness of neonic exhaust from pneumatic corn planters. But as others have pointed out, this says little about emission rates. (It’s like scraping soot off the inside of a tailpipe to estimate auto exhaust emissions.) Perhaps more significantly, they placed bee colonies on all four sides of a small field being planted with this corn planter. While the research paper is silent on the fate of the bees, Dr. Krupke has told others that there were no apparent toxicological problems with these bees. (The paper has other weaknesses, but they’re beyond the scope of this blog.) 

15.       And that leads to a final question: What’s causing the bee deaths? 

There is no doubt in my opinion that there are incidents where using a pneumatic vacuum-style corn planter, with talc added to neonic-treated seed, and with wind blowing strongly towards a concentration of bees (hives, pollinating flowers) at seeding time, that neonics will kill bees. 

But I’m hearing from bee researchers that a larger cause of bee mortality is bee diseases, and most notably virus diseases spread by varroa mites. 

Some beekeepers have claimed, “This can’t be my situation because my varroa levels are low.” But the scientists respond that it takes very few varroa to introduce critical viruses into a bee hive. Once there, they spread quickly – and even to new bees introduced many months later into supposedly empty, though infected, hives. Both Dr. Rob Currie at the University of Manitoba and Dr. Ernesto Guzman, University of Guelph, have research (as yet unpublished) which implicates varroa-transported viruses as being an important cause of abnormal bee deaths. Few viral measurements have ever been taken for commercial bee hives in Ontario, and most viruses are difficult/impossible to detect visually. Bees dying from viruses display symptoms similar to those dying from pesticide exposure. (Canada has only now established its first bee virus lab service. It’s at Beaver Lodge in Northern Alberta, two days away from Ontario and Quebec by courier yet the bees must arrive alive, and the per sample cost is $325.) 

And there may be another factor too. At least one vocal Ontario beekeeper has reported that his bees have done better once he moved them “further north” where the proportion of land planted to corn and soybeans is lower. He also said the “problem” has become more notable in the last few years. He attributes this to neonics, but there could be another cause – bee starvation/malnutrition. There is little (soybeans) or no (corn) nectar with these crops. Corn provides pollen for protein though I’m told bees only collect it if other more attractive sources are not available. With recent higher grain prices, many former forage (i.e., alfalfa/clover) fields have recently been planted to grain crops. Bees positioned near these fields may have had little to eat, especially if many dozens of hives are located at one location, with each hive holding up to 80,000 worker bees. It’s a case of not enough food and too much competition.

 16.       I generally support new OMAF guidelines for corn seed treatments (http://fieldcropnews.com/tag/bee-kills/), and welcome Bayer’s plans for a safer alternative to talc powder. Planter manufacturers could help. German research showed emissions into surrounding air dropped by 90% plus when exhaust was directed to the ground. 

Suggestions that only 20-30% of corn seed needs insecticide treatment make me uneasy. Past field experience is not that useful if you’ve been using treated seed. Agricorp (Ontario’s crop insurance agency) requires a backup insect control plan if using untreated seed, to ensure crop insurance coverage in Ontario. 

I don’t believe corn growers should seed neonic-treated corn using vacuum planters with wind blowing toward areas of bee concentration. Options include different planters, untreated seed, better seed lubricants, calm winds, and/or moving the hives.


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