What We Have Learned from the Neonic Fiasco in Ontario

(This column is written primarily for Ontario agriculture but is relevant to other jurisdictions where farm political influence has plummeted.)

The recent decision by the Government of Ontario to critically restrict usage of neonicotinoid seed treatments for corn and soybean growers, despite limited scientific support, has been a real eye opener for Ontario farmers. This is especially so for grain farmers who are directly affected, but other farmers are also wondering “what’s next?” I’ve written about the “neonic” decision elsewhere and likely will again. (See www.tdaynard.com.) This column is about larger, longer-term implications for Ontario agriculture.
I see four major ones:
Message One: The Ontario political landscape has changed dramatically, permanently and not positively for rural Ontario and its farmers
The neonic decision can be linked directly to the Ontario election of 2014 when, for the first time in history, the province elected a majority government with almost no rural legislators.
The 2014 election followed 12 months in which the Premier Wynne served as Minister of Agriculture and Food. She worked hard as minister, spent a lot of time in rural ridings, made a serious attempt to understand issues and people – but in the end received no political benefit. Rural people still elected candidates from other Parties. Politically, her time as ag minister must have been viewed by her advisors as a total waste of time. But, in the final analysis, it did not matter: she got a majority government anyway, without rural support.
To those who think this is temporary and linked only to Liberals, think again. The message to all Parties is clear: Electoral success in Ontario means catering primarily, perhaps exclusively, to the wants of the urban population. Rural, which represents but 15% of the Ontario population according to Statistics Canada, ranks low in priority, and farm families, who represent only 1.4% of Ontarians, scarcely matter at all. Fifteen new ridings are to be added in Ontario before the next election, almost all in urban areas. As the proportionate size of rural and farm populations shrinks further in decades to come, our political significance will decline further.
Other jurisdictions with sizable farm and rural populations have experienced this long before us. Consider Manitoba where 75% of residents are in Winnipeg and the rural vote has not mattered that much for years. But it’s new to Ontario.
Message Two: To be heard, rural and farm issues must be portrayed in a context important to urbanites
Surveys show that farmers continue to enjoy a high level of trust and goodwill within the Canadian population. But that support is shallow and commonly based on a perception of farming more appropriate to one or two generations ago. Farmers are considered genuine and well-meaning, but not particularly well informed nor “up to speed,” and easily misled by big agribusiness.
Farm groups try to counter this with messages about our high efficiencies, technical sophistication and importance to the economy, but the words often fall on deaf ears. Even the fact that food purchases now represent only 10% of disposable income (with farmers share being 15% of that) garners little attention. The average urbanite really doesn’t care.
What matters more is how farming affects the urban family, and that urban family is concerned about health and food safety, risk avoidance, pleasure, and how to make scarce dollars go further in maintaining and advancing an already high standard of living (by global comparison). While average citizens may be slow to adopt superior environmentally practices themselves if adoption means more bother and a reduced standard of living, they are very receptive and responsive to messages about environmental practices of others. This is especially so for messages about the real or perceived environmental ills of industry – including agriculture.
Urbanites probably care no more about the well-being of the small minority called farmers than they do about other small minorities. While they know instinctively that they depend on farmers for food, they mostly don’t see this as an issue. (They depend on oil companies too, for gasoline and heating oil, but that does not translate into public concern for the well-being of “big oil.”) Grocery shelves are almost always full, and price and quality – not source – are what matters most – notwithstanding what local food advocates might promote.
Trust of both big business and big government is part of the dynamic. The public distrusts anything big, and that increasingly includes big agriculture/big farming.
Equally important, politicians respond to what they hear from their constituents. Constituent priorities and perspectives set political perspectives for most Members of Parliament. Those constituents are mostly urban.
The Honourable Joe Clark (former Canadian Prime Minister for those who don’t know) worded it well in his presentation at the annual convention of the Grain Farmers of Ontario last March. If farmers are to achieve politically, they need to better learn how to align their messages with the needs/goals of others in modern society. Most of those “others” live in cities.

Message Three: Science is of declining importance in political decision making
Most farmers have come to assume that science is the foundation for decisions about technology – both its value and its safety for usage. We choose crop varieties/hybrids, fertility, new pest control products, and new equipment on the basis of science, or a combination of science and economics – and we have assumed that governments regulate the same way.
Canadian farmers have looked at Europe, watching regulatory decisions there being made increasingly by politicians in defiance of good science. We’ve assumed that this wouldn’t happen here. North Americans are different, we thought – more rational. We were wrong.
The ban on lawn pesticide usage imposed in 2009 by the McGuinty government was a sign of things to come in Ontario – even though largely ignored by the farm community at the time. Why should farmers get upset when the main effect is more weeds in lawns or even the occasional need for lawn re-seeding/re-sodding when grubs and skunks wreck havoc?
The science on the issue was clear: If used as directed on product labels, lawn pesticides represent no threat to human health and the effect on environment is very marginal according to Health Canada and national regulators in other advanced countries. But Ontario politicians listened instead to the anti-pesticide and fringe health groups and their messages based largely on chemophobia rather than sound science and toxicology. The days were ending in Ontario when regulatory decisions were set primarily by the opinions and testimonies of scientific experts. The McGuinty decision was a clear signal of growing distrust of both science and scientists by both the public and politicians.
The recent Ontario policy decision on neonicotinoids made in response to NGO lobbying and in defiance of positions of major national regulatory agencies throughout the world, is a further step down this road.
Why this shift has occurred is a huge subject. I’ve offered my own thoughts on why in an earlier column, and will not expand here.
The bottom line is that farmers can no longer rely on scientific principles and the scientific approach as a dominant basis for regulatory policy setting in Ontario. To date, good science still dominates regulatory decision making at the national level in Canada, including decisions made by Health Canada and its Pesticide Regulatory Management Agency, but there too the pressure for change from activist groups is strong. Who knows what will happen if (or as) the political environment changes?

Wheat photo back of Buchanan farm a  Old photo
Message Four: We need to respond to critical issues at the beginning, not when they become an avalanche
In my view, this is one of the biggest mistakes grain farmers and the agribusiness community made with neonics. We underestimated the appeal and the message carried by anti-pesticide NGOs and a few well-connected and media-savvy individuals in the Ontario beekeeping industry. Instead of directly challenging the misinformation or, at best, half-truths being told by these groups and individuals to a generally receptive media when they began two years or more ago, we responded with simple platitudes, not with facts and quality analyses.
The activists staged media events, developed slick media messages, built public support, lobbied urban-based politicians, brought in sympathetic “scientific experts,” even paid for ads on Toronto subways. The response from agriculture was largely one of “we care about bees too,” and hoping it all would just go away.
To cite the Honourable Joe Clark again, the activists were able successfully to redefine farmers as bee killers rather than food producers. They did it largely without opposition.
When we did respond by providing more information and trying to counter the misinformation, it was too late. The public was already convinced (falsely, in my view) that honey bees are becoming extinct and that farmer-applied neonic insecticides are the primary, if not sole, reason.
Agriculture did respond with efforts to reduce neonic-laden dust emissions, a legitimate concern, though was slow in reacting to another reasonable issue: not every acre of corn needs to be planted with neonic-coated seed. In early 2015 the Grain Farmers of Ontario came up with a very credible plan for enhancing the well-being of pollinators. But it was too late by at least a year. Maybe even two.
What industry (and not just agriculture) commonly ignores is the effect that a small group of dedicated activists with media smarts and connections can have on public opinion. I am guessing that the number of key individuals who succeeded in securing a near-ban on neonic seed treatment for corn and soybeans in Ontario may not have been more than a dozen. But they had the right elements: a photogenic and generally well-respected insect, media skills, pesticides and big chemical companies as the “villain,” media ever-ready to portray big business in a bad light and to dramatize potential threats to the natural world, and a public which knows almost nothing about agriculture and which is highly receptive to messages about the environment.
And once the public forms an opinion, rightly or wrongly, no amount of advertizing or other campaigning can cause reversal – at least not for a long time. You can’t stop an avalanche when it is half-way down the mountain.
In my view, the neonic issue is likely beyond salvation for corn and soybean growers at this time in Ontario (and for many beekeepers also concerned about what replaces neonics), and it is time to focus on what’s next. Activist campaigns are well underway on other agricultural practices including the use of other pesticides (especially glyphosate), other seed treatments, genetic modified crops, fertilizer usage, livestock antibiotics, farm animal care – to name a few.
I am especially concerned about genetically modified (I prefer “genetically enhanced”) crops. A good friend in Toronto told me recently, “My friends don’t know what GMO means, but they understand it is bad and to be avoided.” Sweet corn marketers say they avoid Bt hybrids, notwithstanding benefits in reducing insecticide usage, because of concerns voiced by customers. Polls show public attitudes to GMO technology are becoming more negative, even as the supporting science in support of benefits and safety becomes stronger. Sort of like neonics two years ago.
Each negative letter, or column, or editorial needs a response – and not a “what an idiot!” response, but an informed one – not lengthy but with documented facts, and presented in a manner which touches issues of importance to the urban majority. We need to bring in trustworthy “experts,” especially those who can communicate, to counter those provided by activist groups. And we need informed farmers to present our messages as well.
There are some truths which need to be acknowledged in all of this too: Agriculture is not a natural process. Farming affects the natural environment and farm fields cannot be centres of biodiversity. However, producing food is important too. Agriculture represents compromise between pristine and the nutritional supply for seven (soon to be nine) billion people.
Somehow, we need to get more urbanites to understand those compromises, and that they provide major benefits for them too – an abundant and diverse food supply of ever-improving quality and safety, representing an ever-declining share of family disposable income, and grown despite the continuing diversion of farmland to development, roads and, yes, natural heritage. It is so frustrating to see writer-after-writer proclaiming that modern agriculture provides benefits only to farmers while the portion of annual income spent on food – and especially that portion of food expenditures going to farmers – continues to shrink.
That’s our new reality as Ontario farmers. What we do is important to Ontario and Canada; the statistics show that – but that fact alone doesn’t cut it anymore. If we are going to be politically significant in the years ahead, we have to change our approach. It’s a big change for farmers – maybe akin to the earlier introduction of tractors and hybrid corn.