By Debora Van Brenk, The London Free Press
Ontario grain farmers — fuming they’ve been unable to turn back Ontario’s move to severely restrict their use of a pesticide linked to bee deaths — have commissioned a study into what Ontario’s regulations on so-called neonics will cost them.
Ontario’s highest court Wednesday ruled the Grain Farmers of Ontario can’t use the courts to rewrite provincial legislation they disagree with, although the judges on the Ontario Court of Appeal agreed the Liberal government’s legislation “may have significant consequences” for the farmers.
The decision is “both frustrating and disheartening,” said Mark Brock, a Perth County cash crop farmer who chairs the group representing Ontario grain farmers, whose industry is concentrated in Southwestern Ontario — one of the nation’s richest farm belts.
Neonics, a short form for neonicotinoids, are pesticides applied as seed coatings and are widely used in the region’s key crops — corn and soybeans.
Neonics have been linked to the deaths of bees and other pollinators, but growers quarrel with those conclusions.
The province, the first jurisdiction on the continent to take such sweeping steps, aims to reduce use of the seed coatings by 80% by 2017.
Corn and soybean growers say the rules will rob them of yield without improving pollinator health.
The group hasn’t decided yet on its next legal steps, nor ruled out an appeal, but has hired accounting firm BDO to analyze the social and economic impact of the provincial government’s regulations for the next three years.
Brock wouldn’t disclose how much the legal battle has cost the organization so far.
In its ruling, the three-judge panel said in part, “the regulation is not ambiguous and GFO has not identified a genuine dispute about the farmers’ rights and obligations.”
Farmers had argued in a three-hour hearing in March that the rules – the most stringent in North America – were unwieldy and impractical and would harm their businesses.
But the panel disagreed, saying even if farmers were to prove the regulation creates financial hardship, is futile and provides little environmental benefit — and even if the legislation proves unwise or ineffective — it’s still not a mater for the courts to change.
“Private litigants are not entitled to use the courts as an indirect method of altering public policy decisions, especially those involving the expenditure of public funds.”
The point may be a moot one this season for most farmers, who have already bought this year’s seed based on the new provincial rules and who, in some cases, have already started planting.
But Brock said the year-over-year effects on farming will be difficult to manage.
“I think we’re trying to deal with this idea of lower yields, less income and how they’re going to impact our farming incomes in light of lower commodity prices as well. It puts a significant strain on our operations.”
The issue will continue to be a priority for the group in its discussions with provincial officials, he said.
Ontario has about 28,000 grain farmers operating on more than six million acres of land.
Southwestern Ontario is the heartland of that corn and soybean acreage, which is part of a larger agricultural economy that includes equipment selling, trucking, seed breeding and fertilizer sales.
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— A type of pesticide applied as a coating on corn and soybean seeds to battle bugs before they can attack emerging crops.
— Beekeepers say neonics kill pollinators, either through direct exposure or long-term by harming their ability to breed and forage.
— Farmers say they’re safer than applying other pesticides to mature plants.
— Ongoing international debate about the science and practice of neonic use.
— Ontario is North America’s first jurisdiction to restrict their use.
Read the Ontario Court of Appeal ruling here.