The Binkley Report

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...

The Binkley Report

On bees, trains, and silver bullets

A quick fix requires a long, hard look

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

01 March 2014 — There’re a couple of issues percolating away on Parliament Hill that serve as handy reminders than whenever someone advocates a quick fix, you should take a long, hard look at the problem.

Too often people who should know better clamour for the silver bullet solution to an issue when what’s really needed is a close study to get the correct actions.

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Case in point, and also to highlight something useful being done by the Senate, the upper chamber’s agriculture committee is studying the state of the country’s bee population. Readers may recall considerable media attention about bee die offs in the spring of 2012 and 2013 that have been linked to a class of insecticides applied to corn and soybean seeds before they’re planted. The problem is that the machines used to plant the seeds released a bit of dust that is laced with the insecticide and the bees, which are foraging for nectar, breathe in the stuff. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that.

Farm groups have been working with government agencies, beekeepers and farm supply and machinery companies to find ways to protect the bees during the planting season. But a noisy campaign has continued on about banning the insecticide.

Nice silver bullet solution, eh! But other than some beekeepers and environmental groups with an agenda, no one is convinced a ban will begin to solve all the challenges facing bees.

Ernesto Guzman is the Head of the Honey Bee Research Centre at University of Guelph and one of the experts who spoke to the committee. “One third of what we eat in Western societies is produced thanks to the pollinating effect of honeybees and other bees. . . It is estimated that the value of honeybee pollination in Canada is approximately $2 billion a year. Honeybees are important for food production and for honey production.”

Beekeepers in North American and Europe have been losing about one third of their colonies every year for the past six years. “Something is going on. . . I don't have a figure for Canada but for the province of Ontario, when we consider the value of honey that is lost every year and the value of yields not produced by crops benefited by bees, we come up with a figure of about $50 million every year. The value of those losses in Canada must exceed several hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Which brings us to the silver bullet solution. “What's killing the bees is not a single factor,” Guzman said. “You can make a list of 20 to 30 different factors that have been mentioned as potential culprits causing these losses; so it's a multifactorial problem. It's not so simple to resolve. If it was one factor, we would solve it relatively easily, but we have a number of factors.” He identifies mites as the chief bad guy followed by fungi, pesticides and climate change. Many others also blame a loss of habitat as a factor in bee declines. Bees need trees and flower not vast expanses of lawn.

The Senate committee appears to have prepared for these hearings and it will be interesting to see what conclusions the senators come to.

Meanwhile the Commons agriculture committee is examining the fiasco in western grain transportation.

So far, the MPs have focused on finding new ways to heap blame on the railways when they should be concentrating on pushing CN, CP, the grain companies, and other players in the system on how they plan to recover to ship last fall’s massive crop. The blame game may sound good but doesn’t fix anything especially in such a complicated situation.

Technical silver-bullet solutions like railway running rights and removing a cap on grain transportation earnings by the railways won’t get any of this crop rolling and would only complicate any substantive fixes in the future. And restoring the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly as opposition MPs dream of wouldn’t help either.

Among the factors at play are a much larger than expected crop that came off late and little of it was pre-sold. Add in a brutal winter and what’s likely to be a flood prone spring in many areas. Kind of a perfect storm of things that could go wrong.

The complaints about delays in grain shipping began in late November and got a thorough airing in Ottawa in early December but the government didn’t take the issue seriously. Two months later, it reluctantly acknowledged there was a major problem and began searching about for solutions. With some prodding, the various players are finally talking together about short-and-long-term solutions. Not a silver bullet among them.