Ontario’s proposed cosmetic pesticide ban excludes agriculture. But farmers see the writing on the wall, and the implications of a cosmetic ban on farming practices.

    In a hard-hitting editorial in the latest edition of Ontario Corn Producer magazine, Jackie Fraser, executive director of the Guelph-based environmental farm group AGCare, representing some 45,000 Ontario farmers, sounds the alarm. She says a provincial ban will send a signal to the public that pesticides are inherently dangerous, so much so that they need to be banned. “It won’t take long for activities to swing media coverage towards agricultural use,” she says, “as we know has always been the greater plan.”

    Indeed, farmers are aware that when it comes to the cosmetic pesticide issue, the horse has left the barn. No matter how much science is put forward showing product safety, it’s simply too emotional an issue to expect it to go away – especially as long as Canadians continue dying of suspected and poorly understood environmental ills. A few years ago, CropLife Canada, an Etobicoke-based organization dedicated to advocating for the crop protection (herbicides and pesticides) industry, spent barrels of money unsuccessfully challenging Toronto’s cosmetic pesticide ban. It likewise sensed pressure on agriculture would follow. With the municipal cosmetic-ban movement having spreading across the country, Fraser is right – it’s just a matter of time before pressure is exerted on farming.

    So, now what? We’ve made large-scale farming a part of our culture, and there’s no way it can feed millions of people without crop protection products. A cosmetic pesticide-like ban in farming is out of question.

    But many people don’t know that. So the agricultural sector is approaching this issue as a crossroads, trying to turn it into an opportunity to explain the considerable and effective measures it’s already taken towards responsible pesticide use. It’s also offering its leadership and knowledge to help the province fashion an action plan that farmers figure will be less adversarial than an outright ban.

    It’s calling for responsible pesticide use legislation for cosmetic applications. Farmers believe unnecessary and irresponsible pesticides use should be controlled, not the products themselves.

    So, as this issue heats up with spring’s inevitable arrival, you’ll read about the farming sector suggesting measures that are largely based on training. The target is those who use, and sell, pesticides. It’s an approach founded on Ontario’s grower pesticide safety course, which the farm community voluntarily help create some 20 years ago.

    The course is mandatory for farmers, under the provincial Pesticides Act. Farmers must be trained and certified through the program to buy and use pesticides. Vendors, too, must get their ticket, and all parties have to re-certify every five years to stay current.

     Just like urban Canada, farmers dislike willy-nilly pesticide use anywhere, on lawns or on farms. They say only trained and certified practitioners should be able to determine the need for pesticides, if no other options are available. They’re quite happy to see alternatives emerge, some of which may have applicability on farms. Who knows.

    But they do know the grower-training path they’ve chosen has a track record of working very well. A provincial government study by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in 2002 showed farmers have cut their pesticide use by 52 per cent in two decades, thanks to measures such as training, as well as more targeted formulations by the manufacturers. Farmers can use less product and get the same results.

    They can also use fewer and more targeted products because of the emergence of biotechnology, which has led to crops that produce more and can resist specific pesticides. That’s not what the cosmetic ban is about, or even the grower safety course, but it’s bound to make its way into the mix as the issue intensifies.

    Farmers have written the ministries of agriculture, the environment, and the premier, asking that their training-based approach get an airing. They claim it’s clean, simple and defendable. It avoids the province having to differentiate between urban and rural use, or grant exemptions, or create difficult public policy, they say.  

    Those who support a ban likely won’t buy it. Farmers will need to defend their plan, meaning a lot of dialogue is still to come.