Friday, 14 May 2010

Are Pesticide Regulators on theTake?

Canadian Authorities Refuse to Protect Precious Pollinators From Known Toxins. Is Something Crooked Going on Here?

by Larry Powell

Nothing smacks of collusion between government officials and the agro-chemical industry, quite like the current crisis facing the world’s pollinators.

For years, scientific research teams both far and near, have been documenting dwindling numbers, even extinctions, of several populations of pollinators like honey bees and bumble bees.

Scores of reputable groups, including The Canadian Pollination Institute (CANPOLIN), the Xerces Society and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the ‘States, are all sounding the same alarm;

“The diversity and abundance of insect pollinators are in a global state of decline. This decline represents a serious threat to the integrity of natural ecosystems and the production of many crops.”

Xerces has been devoted to preserving habitat for invertebrates since 1971. It stresses, the importance of these wondrous creatures is not to be underestimated.

“Bees are undoubtedly the most abundant pollinators of flowering plants in our environment. The services that bees and other pollinators provide, account for over 30 percent of the foods and beverages that we consume.”

One of those crops is apples. (See my short video of apples in a Manitoba orchard, below. Could they really become a thing of the past, too? Seems unthinkable, doesn't it?)

So Who or What is to Blame?

Many culprits are suspected in the deaths of pollinators. They include mites, pathogens, habitat loss, diet, stress and climate change.

But, for years, a common thread has woven its way through the scientific studies; several pesticides used by conventional farmers and beekeepers to control crop pests and mites which prey on the bees.

According to NAS, these products “Kill or weaken thousands of honey bee colonies in the US each year. Pesticides can potentially harm many bee species and even eliminate some pollinator populations in ecosystems.”
While it cannot be proven conclusively, NAS says pollen from genetically-modified crops may even be affecting the “behaviour, physiology and reproduction” of honey bees and even the quality of the finished product, honey!
None of this has prevented millions of acres of farmland from being sewn each year to GMOs. On the Canadian prairies alone, GMO canola is so dominant it has wiped out the market for organic farmers by contaminating their fields with its pollen.
(And, oh, by the way, GMO corn, sugar beets, soy, alfalfa and possibly even wheat, also, are either here already, or are ready to be rubber-stamped for approval by our “regulators.”
Xerces calls certain insecticides “highly toxic to bees” and blames them for “most of the bee poisonings in the Pacific Northwest.” (Both US & Canada.)

In 2006, one product blacklisted by Xerces, chlorpyrfos (Lorsban) was used to combat an outbreak of bertha armyworms in canola crops in western Manitoba. It was sprayed in huge amounts from the air over a vast area near Roblin and Swan River. It even made some people sick. (True to form, nothing was done about that.) Needless to say, its impact on pollinators was neither considered beforehand, nor investigated afterward.

In 2008, another product singled out by Xerces, clothianidin, killed billions of honey bees in Europe. After that, several countries banned or suspended its use there. But not Canada.

Here, it is commonly used to treat canola seed. Scientists call it a “systemic” poison, which gets into all parts of a plant, including the pollen and nectar. (The bulk of honey produced here in Manitoba comes from bees that forage on canola.)

Then, a couple of years ago, our regulators added insult to injury. They licensed yet another, similar product, spirotetramat (Movento). Beekeepers fear it is even deadlier than its predecessors! (See Manitoba Co-Operator, Oct. 9-’08, “New Systemic Insecticide Worries Beekeepers.”)

In the US, a judge recently ordered spirotetramat removed from the market. But not in Canada.

Then, last summer, the Monsanto Corporation helped write another sad chapter in this sordid tale.

Monsanto and its co-inventor, Dow AgroScience, announced the arrival of a new GM crop in Canada and the US, “SmartStax” corn.

It contains a witches brew of additives including cleverly-manipulated genes and clothianidin, one of the most notorious bee-killers in the chemical-makers’ arsenal.

The government’s Food Inspection Agency authorized its release without even conducting an environmental risk assessment. Neither Health Canada nor its “Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency” bothered to look into any impact the new product might have on human health or safety.

In so doing, they violated the spirit of “Codex,” an international food safety treaty which Canada helped to negotiate.

Codex warns that “unintended effects” may arise from consumption of products made the way “Smartstax” is made, and ought to go through a full safety assessment.

So What is Going on Here?
Might the giant chemical companies actually be greasing the palms of bureaucrats and even their political masters to get them to do their bidding?

I have no idea. And I’m not saying that they are. What I am saying is, what other explanation makes sense? Why is no one stepping up to explain this baffling, misplaced loyalty to the corporations rather than to we, the people who elect our policy-makers?

After all, if there is something crooked going on, it wouldn’t be the first time.

A few years ago, the US government sued Monsanto $1.5 million for trying to bribe Indonesian officials to license its GMO cotton in that country.

In the 1990s, Monsanto actually offered Health Canada a bribe of up to $2 million to approve its bovine growth hormone here. It was rejected, but only after senate hearings and serious accusations from government scientists who actually had a conscience. They complained they were being pressured by their bosses to fast-track approval of the hormone, despite evidence that it was harmful to both cattle and humans.

My own province, Manitoba, concedes that “certain bee species are declining.” But, in an email from a provincial environment official, I was told that, “a lack of information on most species makes assessing their conservation status difficult if not impossible.”

Difficult if not impossible? With a defeatist attitude like that, what hope is there?

Some three weeks ago, I asked my own Member of Parliament, why chemicals harmful to pollinators keep getting approved. He still hasn’t answered!

He did, however, vote the other day in the Commons with most of his government colleagues, against a private members bill. If passed, it would force the government, before rubber-stamping any more GMO crops, to think about how farmers’ pocketbooks might be hurt if other countries won’t buy those crops. Not surprisingly, the biotech industry is strongly opposed to the bill, also.

(Keep in mind GMOs lead to more pesticides use and, of course, more bucks for the corporations.)

If the industry truly believed the propaganda it spews out, that it works “with nature” and for “sustainable agriculture”, it would surely put an immediate halt to the production of these evil concoctions.

While all the pieces of the "pollinator-decline" puzzle have yet to be found, is enough not known about the role of pesticides to act, either by banning or replacing the worst offenders? Call me crazy, but would this not remove at least one barrier to finding a solution?

Meanwhile, Canada’s PMRA clings stubbornly to its denial line. In a recent message to me, the agency insists Movento, specifically, underwent "rigorous scientific review" and was shown to pose "no unacceptable risk" to humans, the environment, or bees!

Few people would be so naïve as to think that pollinators are the only creatures in mortal danger on this planet. Smarter people than I claim we are now living through the worst era of mass extinction since the dinosaurs! But, if the prospective loss of pollinators, which help us produce the very food we need to survive, does not move us to action, what the Hell will?

Might now be the time for a judicial inquiry to shake some answers loose?

As long as our government officials believe all they have to do to explain this outrageous behaviour is to utter empty “don’t worry, be happy” platitudes, I believe that it is!

Alta. County Calls Disaster as Storms Kill Calves

Manitoba Co-Operator - Staff - 5/13/2010

What began as a....

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Great Debate Over Air Quality in the Swan Valley Reaches a Climax

by Larry Powell

(This story also appears in the current issue of Canadian Dimension magazine.)

Bill Blaikie is about to go through a bit of a “baptism by fire” as Manitoba's new Minister of Conservation. He will soon need to decide whether to order Louisiana Pacific Canada Ltd. (LP) to restart the pollution control devices it shut down at its wood products plant near Minitonas, in the Swan Valley over a year ago. If he does that, he will be throwing down the gauntlet to LP to make good on its threat to shut the whole plant down, dealing a body blow to the local economy.

Or he could grant the corporation’s request for a permanent decommissioning of the devices. If he does that, it could mean more harmful industrial pollutants will continue to be released into the atmosphere than at any time since the plant opened, with the controls operating, in 1996. Not only that, he would almost certainly incur the renewed wrath of individual citizens and environmental groups who believe the absence of controls is harming air quality, to some extent for Minitonas residents, but especially for those living even closer to the plant.

In its application to the government, LP said harsh economic realities were forcing it to cut costs. It reports its sales have been slumping thanks to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown in the US, where it sells much of its product.

The plant turns out oriented strand board (OSB) a type of paneling used in house construction.

OSB is made from compressed hardwood and wood chips sealed together with toxic bonding agents.

The company claims the aging control devices, called Regenerative Thermal Oxidizers, or RTOs, cost $3 million dollars a year to operate and will soon have to be replaced, at a cost of another $10 million. It calls them “a burden that will threaten the competitiveness of our operations.” (Other devices known as Wet Electrostatic Precipitators, (WESPS), help control particulate matter coming from the plant. LP has kept the WESPS running and plans to continue to do so.)

If the government requires it to start the RTOs up again, however, the company warns it may have to shut down the entire plant, . "Throwing hundreds of staff, contractors and log handlers out of work for an indefinite period."

On January 9th, 2009, apparently taking that threat seriously, Blaikie's predecessor, Stan Struthers, quietly said "yes" to LP’s request to temporarily decommission the RTOs.

Then, in March, after an uproar from critics, Struthers instructed the Clean Environment Commission, (CEC), an arms-length advisory agency, to conduct an investigation into the merits of LP's application. In July, the CEC heard witnesses both for and against that application.

The CEC was originally supposed to make its recommendations to Mr. Blaikie last fall. But it announced it would need extra time to consider additional evidence from the company. So those recommendations are not expected now until some time this spring.

Is There Evidence of Harm to Human Health?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the evidence on this question is conflicting.

The corporation told the CEC, a health risk assessment showed that, even without RTOs, the threat to the public ranged from zero to negligible.

But Dan Soprovich of Concerned Citizens of the Valley (CCV), strongly opposed to LP’s application, claims otherwise. He told the same CEC proceeding , a huge American study had established a link between formaldehyde in the atmosphere and ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. (Formaldehyde is one of the pollutants, which the plant produces.) Soprovich claimed three people have died of ALS within 10 miles of the plant since it opened.

Given local populations, he claims that is more than 11 times the national Canadian average.

So Just How Much Pollutant is Being Released?

According to Charles Simon of the Florida-based company, Precision Analytical Laboratories Inc., the amount is substantial.

He is one of three independent experts hired by Concerned Citizens of the Valley, the Boreal Forest Network and Manitoba's Public Interest Law Centre.

These experts examined the claims made and methods used by LP to support its application.

Dr. Simon estimates, a fully operational mill, without controls, would put more than 1,000 tonnes of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) into the air in one year. That's more than 40 times what it would have been, had the controls remained online. VOCs include cancer-causing substances such as formaldehyde.

Simon further calculates, without the RTOs, the mill would annually release almost 400 tonnes of another family of emissions, Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS) in a year. That's 100 times what would have been the case had the controls stayed in place. HAPS include pollutants such as benzene, said to cause cancer and birth defects.

Is There a Win-Win Solution to All of This?"

Dr. Simon believes there is. He says hundreds of devices known as bioreactors are already being used successfully around the world to control industrial emissions.

He believes bioreactors might not only provide the best control technology available for the mill, they’d cost about the same or less than would new RTOs. And operating costs would be about one quarter of what they would otherwise be.

LP has reminded the public on several occasions that, when they were operating, the RTOs used to produce 12,000 tonnes of harmful greenhouse gases annually. That's because they burned large amounts of natural gas to incinerate the pollutants.

Dr. Simon concedes that this is true. But, he counters, bioreactors, don't create greenhouse gases at all in their operation. (He also suggests they may even be able to do the job of the WESPS, saving the company even more money.)

As CCV puts it, "This technology (bioreactors) can greatly reduce greenhouse gases and operating costs while effectively controlling the toxins and other pollutants. It would address the environmental, social and economic elements of this issue."

How Have Politicians Handled Things?

The Insight this issue has provided into the way our political system works, is, to some observers, the stuff of "Political Science 101.”

Back in the mid ‘90s, before being elected to the legislature, Stan Struthers was an active member of CCV, which was lobbying hard for RTOs. (Some even say he came up with the group's name!) Fast-forward to last year, when he became the Minister who let LP shut them down. (After that, Struthers was appointed as the Minister of Agriculture.)

When LP’s application to build its OSB plant was first being discussed, Rosanne Wowchuk was an NDP opposition critic, representing Swan River (which she still does), the riding where the plant is located. The Conservative government of Gary Filmon was serving its last term.

Like Struthers, Ms. Wowchuk also spoke out strongly for RTOs both at a formal CEC hearing and even in the legislature. So she and Struthers both may have been instrumental in having them installed in the first place. Since the NDP came to power, Ms. Wowchuk has served as Agriculture Minister, Deputy Premier and now, Minister of Finance.

This begs the question, what has changed in the past 15 years or so?

Neither Mr. Struthers nor Ms. Wowchuk has responded to my request for

comments. All Mr. Blaikie will say is, he’ll await the CEC's recommendations before

taking any action.

While the politicians may argue they are simply protecting jobs by making sure LP

continues to operate, others believe the corporation’s threat to shut down is an

empty one.

In a letter to the local paper, CCV wrote, this (economic argument) “contradicts reports about LP on the internet.” It says the corporation actually plans to expand business in the UK, Australia and Japan “as part of a concerted campaign to grow market share and capitalize on the retreat from the market by one of its competitors, Weyerhaeuser."

At the time of his report last fall, even Dr. Simon took note of how LP stocks were rebounding in value after being hit by the recession.

Meanwhile, it’s to be hoped those CEC recommendations, expected soon, may shed some light, not just more heat, on the situation.


Please also read - "Standing the Precautionary Principle on its Head."

Mother Earth Can Live Without Us, But We Cannot Live Without Her

Posted by Judy Rebick on April 26th 2010

We, the Indigenous Peoples, nations and...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Growing Danger of Oil Slick Reaching the Gulf Stream

by Emily Gertz May 10, 2010 OnEarth

Right now, the northern Gulf Coast from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle is bracing...

"Paths Less Travelled" Blogger Wins Award

I am honoured to announce that one of my in-depth articles on declining populations of plant pollinators has won an award. The Manitoba Community Newspapers Associaton cited "Plight of the Humble Bee," published in the Roblin Review this winter, as first runner-up in the category of environmental journalism.

The first-place award in the category went to Shane Gibson for a story published in the Stonewall Argus and Teulon Times.

The awards were announced at the 91st Annual MCNA Convention and Better Newspapers Competition Awards in Winnipeg in April.

I'm also pleased to announce that I have had my first story (also about plant pollinators) posted recently on AlterNet, an award-winning news magazine and online community. Much to my delight, it has prompted a huge amount of comment and debate.

AlterNet creates "original journalism and amplifies the best of hundreds of other independent media sources. Its aim is to inspire action and advocacy on the environment, human rights, civil liberties, social justice, media, health care issues, and more.

Several of my stories have also appeared on OnEarth and Allvoices. OnEarth is both an online and "a quarterly (print) magazine of thought and opinion on the environment and is open to diverse points of view." It is published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, a large US conservation organization.

Allvoices is an outlet for "citizen journalists" to have their articles on any topic read by a wide internet audience.

This is great news, Larry!
Congratulations - on many counts!!!
Elaine Hughes

Beyond Covid 19. Are we risking yet another pandemic if we continue to embrace "assembly-line" livestock production into the future?

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