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Pesticides on sale!

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Blog entry by Karen Ross, Ph.D. Project Manager - Pesticides and Toxic Substances at Équiterre.

“Go to the agrochemical company’s website,” said an organic farmer presenting at a pesticide conference hosted at UQAM last Friday, at which Équiterre made a presentation about our ongoing work on pesticide legislative reform in Québec.

“You’ll notice that some of the most commonly used pesticides in Canada are offered at a discounted rate if purchased before March 31. So,” she asked the audience, “when do you think most producers buy their pesticides in Canada?” She let the rhetorical question hang in the room. Indeed, the answer was evident if considered from the lens of business economics: all entrepreneurs, farmers included, concerned about minimizing expenses and maximizing revenue would be inclined to purchase their pesticide supply before March 31.

But, when considered from a different perspective, one grounded in ecology and environmental sciences, the answer should have been far less obvious. I conjured an image of producers in the thick of a cold Canadian winter, digging their shovel down through feet of snow on their fields to expose a small piece of frozen soil. It would appear that, based on an assessment of a field asleep in winter hibernation, even the most experienced producer couldn’t know with any amount of confidence which pests may appear come growing season. From an ecological perspective, then, purchasing a particular potion of a systemic pest control product before March 31, with the intention of broadly applying it at the outset of the season, made little sense no matter how deep the discount!

Market mechanisms, GMOs and other factors

Ironically, however, large-scale producers trapped on a treadmill of pesticide use can in fact predict their needs for the following season. Most of the seeds planted across Canada’s largest monocultures of grains and oilseeds – corn, soy and canola-- are genetically modified to require particular pest control products for their growth. In essence, seeds are tied to synthetic agro-inputs, and drive an agricultural system based on preventative chemical treatments, rather than a more cautionary one rooted in a “use as needed” ethic. The market mechanism—a mid-winter sale of pesticide products—therefore acts as a powerful source of momentum, propelling producers season after season to maintain industrialized systems of agriculture that remain disconnected from the needs of the land and the specific requirements of the pest outbreaks of the season.

The market mechanism is but one incentive for producers to maintain the status quo year after year, among others even more significant like the large-scale capital investment, specialized equipment, accessible government subsidies, degrading soil quality that requires heavy doses of external inputs, and the threat of superweeds that would indeed take root after seasons of heavy pesticide use. Ironically, this predictable agricultural system and all of its tied-in chemical products is so often referred to as “innovative”.

Putting forward Alternatives

It takes courage, therefore, for a producer to reorient production. We must challenge ourselves, then, to think about how we can support producers in ways that counter these powerful corporate market mechanisms like mid-winter pesticide sales. What we require is support for more responsible pest management practices, like regular monitoring and evaluation to identify and diagnose unique pest problems as they arise, using non-chemical techniques for pest prevention like crop rotation and intercropping, and the integration of other central principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in which chemical pesticides are used only as a last resort. So, the counter-question we should be asking ourselves is about how we create alternative market mechanisms that help producers transition to something more sustainable, grounded in the ecosystems in which we farm rather than in the landscapes we’ve manufactured into simplified and standardized monocultures. The answers to this question, in the end, could be one of the keys to building a system grounded in true innovation, and are at the heart of some of Équiterre’s strategic objectives over the next year to advocate for economic and policy reform in support of farmers transitioning to more ecological agriculture and those already engaged in the organic movement.

Équiterre invites you to act and sign these two petitions:

  • Sign to ban atrazine, a synthetic herbicide banned in Europe over a decade ago, but still used in Canada despite its many harmful effects.
  • Send a letter saying that while you support the proposed ban on imidacloprid, you want ALL neonics to be banned as soon as possible in Canada.