Ecojustice Blog – Healthy communities, Nature Posted on July 15, 2016 (updated: June 2, 2020)

You asked, we answered: Why we’re going to court to protect the bees

Julia CroomeLawyer
Ecojustice lawyer Charles HattCharles HattEcojustice Alumni
Protect pollinators from neonic pesticides
Photo by Gregory Hottma

After filing a lawsuit to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides last week, words of encouragement and great questions came pouring in from supporters like you.

Supporters like you often tell us how important you think it is to limit pesticide use.  And over the years, thanks to your support, we have been able to help do just that.

In 2001, when the Town of Hudson, Q.C., took its fight for the right to restrict cosmetic pesticide use to the Supreme Court of Canada, we intervened in support of the community and helped win a precedent-setting ruling. Since this ruling, approximately 200 pesticide use bylaws have been passed around the country. Today, all but two provinces (Saskatchewan and British Columbia) have laws regulating cosmetic pesticides. Our work in this area, however, is not over yet.

Just last week, we filed a new case that takes aim at harmful neonicotinoid pesticides. These pesticides are predominantly used in agriculture and have gained notoriety for their links to mass bee die-offs. In fact, given the growing body of scientific evidence that points to these pesticides as one of the main culprits behind declining pollinator populations, it’s hard to believe that we continue to use them at all.

When we launched this case, we were amazed by the encouragement and support we received from people like you. Thank you for your commitment to protect pollinators from these dangerous pesticides.

You let us know loud and clear that harmful chemicals have no place in our communities and that you are ready to stand beside us as we head to court for this case. You also asked a number of thoughtful questions about the details of this case and how it fits into the bigger picture. Here are our answers:


Q: What are neonicotinoid pesticides?

A: Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are the most-widely used class of insecticide worldwide.

Neonics are systemic. This means they are taken up through leaves or roots, and spread throughout the plant. They cannot be washed or peeled off of crops.

In the agriculture sector, neonics are marketed as a way to protect crops from harmful insects. But studies show that these pesticides are also likely to harm “non-target organisms.” In other words, they harm species beyond the insects they’re designed to control. Specifically, neonicotinoids have been linked to wild pollinator declines and honeybee die-offs.

Our case focuses on two types of neonics that are widely-used in Canadian agriculture: Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam. There are currently 16 products registered in Canada that list Clothianidin as an active ingredient, and 23 that list Thiamethoxam. According to the 2013 Pest Management Regulatory Agency’s sales report, which was released in 2015, Thiamethoxam is the eighth-highest-used insecticide in Canada based on sales. Clothianidin is the ninth.


Q: What are the known effects of neonics?

A: Many scientific studies have linked neonicotinoids with steep declines in pollinator populations.

Research suggests neonics have played a role in mass bee die-offs, and that the pesticides harm bees’ metabolic, immune, and reproductive functions, and negatively affect bees’ foraging and homing behaviour.

A study published in the journal Nature in April found that neonicotinoids “pose substantial risk to wild bees in agricultural landscapes.” And a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Pollution Research in 2015 found that neonicotinoids are “highly toxic to all bee species tested so far.” And just last month new research came out showing how neonics impair bees’ ability to raise their young through a mechanism we’d never known about before.

Neonicotinoids can also cause harm further up the food chain. In a 2014 study, researchers linked the neonicotinoid Imidacloprid with declines in insect-eating bird populations.

Neonicotinoids are also water soluble, and leach into the soil and water, where they persist in the environment for extended periods of time – sometimes hundreds of days, or longer.


Q: Why should we care about pollinator deaths?

A: Pollinators play a key role in fertilizing plants, and their rapid population decline is a major cause for concern.

For some plants, pollination is necessary to grow seeds or fruit. Approximately 80 per cent of flowering plants require pollinators to reproduce. Without pollinators to carry out this important process, the health and diversity of both wild and cultivated plants would suffer substantially, and our food supply would be severely impacted.


Q: Why did we take on this case?

A: There are two major issues with the way Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam have been handled by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA).

First and foremost, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam have been registered for use in Canada since 2003 and 2000 respectively. Almost the entire time the PMRA has been waiting for studies on their impacts to pollinators. The PMRA’s own deadlines for these studies have passed time and again, but the PMRA has continued the pesticides’ registrations anyway.

Clothianidin has now been registered for 13 years, and Thiamethoxam for 16, without the PMRA ever receiving adequate data on their impact on pollinators. The Pest Control Products Act (the Act) requires the PMRA to have “reasonable certainty” that no harm will result to the environment from the use of Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam. Our clients say the PMRA cannot possibly have reasonable certainty that these neonics won’t harm the environment given its conduct over the years. In other words, the PMRA’s course of conduct is unlawful and the pesticides’ registrations are invalid.

Second, the Act also requires the PMRA to consult the public before making decisions to register pesticides. But a provision in the Pest Control Products Regulation excludes so-called “conditional” registrations from the Act’s public consultation requirement. The practical result of this is that Thiamethoxam has been “conditionally registered” since 2006 without the public ever being consulted on its risks. On behalf of our clients we are challenging this provision of the Regulation as in conflict with the Act and, therefore, of no force or effect.


Q: Why are we launching this case now?

The PMRA is currently re-evaluating the use of neonicotinoids and their effects on pollinators, and final decisions for Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam are expected sometime in 2018.

With bee populations plummeting and a growing body of science pointing to neonicotinoids as part of the problem we believe that two years is too long to wait for action on this issue.


Q: How do other countries regulate neonicotinoids?

A: Many places around the world have already taken steps to protect pollinators from neonics.

In 2013, members of the European commission voted to restrict the neonics Thiamethoxam, Clothianidin and Imidacloprid throughout the continent. And earlier this year (2016), members of France’s National Assembly went a step further, approving plans for an outright ban on all neonics. If this measure wins support from the French Senate, it could come into effect by September 2018.

Even within Canada, there have been efforts to limit neonics use. Ontario, for example, aims to reduce the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed by 80 per cent by 2017.


Q: What do we hope this case will accomplish?

A:  We want to pave the way for more rigorous reviews of toxic pesticides in Canada, particularly those with the potential to harm pollinators, like Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam.

The Act already has requirements that protect the environment. We want those met going forward – for neonicotinoids and every other pesticide. No pesticide should be used in Canada unless and until it meets the Act’s registration standards for protection of human health and the environment.


Q: What about other risky pesticides that aren’t challenged in this case, like Imidacloprid and Atrazine?

Sadly, there are too many pesticides currently registered for use in Canada that pose serious risks to the health of Canadians and our environment. Together with partners we are working to address dangerous pesticides not challenged in this case, including Imidacloprid and Atrazine, in other ways. We believe that no risky pesticide should be allowed to compromise the health of Canadians or our environment.


Q: How can I support this case?

A: Your support is crucial as we continue our fight to protect pollinators from harmful pesticides. You can support this case by making a donation today or sharing our work with your family and friends. Thank you!

Build the case for a better earth

Thanks to the support of people like you, Ecojustice goes to court to protect what we value most — the air, land and water that sustains all life. Make your gift today and support bold litigation for a brighter environmental future.

Join our newsletter

Get updates on the most pressing environmental issues delivered straight to your inbox.

Join our online community

Follow us on social media