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Science Under Siege at the Commons Agriculture Committee

Pesticide companies are miffed with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) for doing its job. The agency recently completed a scientific review of the pesticide Imidacloprid. This pesticide is one of the heavily used neonicotinoid pesticides implicated in the decline of bees and other pollinators. Looking beyond pollinators, the recent PMRA review found this chemical to be an unacceptable risk to aquatic ecosystems.

Applying the pesticide law and policy that the PMRA is tasked with implementing, the agency recommended a full phase-out of this chemical within five years. The consultation deadline on this proposed decision from the PMRA had been the 21st of last month.

When I discovered the deadline had been extended to March 23rd I was glad to have the extra time. I had looked at the proposal briefly and was thrilled to see such a strong decision. To prepare CELA’s response I intended to review it more closely and dig into the details to see whether even swifter action was justified.

However, last week I learned the consultation deadline was extended at the request of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture. The pesticide industry sought their involvement and the Committee is apparently seized with the importance of providing the industry with a fair hearing. It was a move that reminded me of what parents everywhere experience: kids asking Dad the same question they asked Mom, hoping for a different answer.

The Agriculture Committee decided to hold hearings so they can make a report to the PMRA. They invited the PMRA and several large multi-national pesticide companies. As an afterthought, and in response to a media release from diverse environmental groups objecting to this one-sided review, the Committee agreed to also hear from two environmental groups.

This is a very odd situation. And we’ve got the person years at CELA to be sure of it.

Adding up the years of experience on our staff in responding to public consultations on similarly routine and administrative decisions by government agencies, we get into the hundreds of years. We cannot recall a similar situation where such meddling has occurred by a parliamentary standing committee.

These committees of MPs get involved, quite appropriately, at a broader, policy level. Many examples come to mind such as the current and legally mandated review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act by the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Commons Committees routinely engage in reviews of issues within their respective mandates so that they can provide Parliament or the Minister responsible with advice.

But that is not what is happening here.

The PMRA is an agency of Health Canada, not Agriculture Canada. They administer the Pest Control Products Act (PCPA) and are answerable to the Minister of Health, not the Minister of Agriculture. When engaging with Parliament, such as when the PMRA is called upon to address matters of broad policy under the PCPA or to amend the PCPA, the PMRA reports to the Standing Committee on Health, not the Standing Committee on Agriculture.

Nor does the Health Committee get involved in the hundreds of science-based decisions required to ensure the routine implementation of the PCPA. Why would they? They are not scientists. They are politicians. Or if they occasionally happen to be scientists, they did not get elected as MPs to provide the specialized scientific decision-making that occurs within the PMRA.

So what is going on here?

The decision by the Agriculture Committee to intervene in this matter smacks of political interference in a science-based decision. It would be inappropriate for even the Health Committee to take such an action. For the Agriculture Committee to do so is wildly inappropriate.

Government decisions on matters of environmental protection, public health, and in many other areas, need to be based on scientific evidence. Indeed we can find such a requirement to do so across multiple mandate letters given to federal Ministers of Health, Environment, Agriculture, Science, etc., in the fall of 2016. CELA agrees with this approach. Government decisions on matters requiring scientific review must be evidence-based. We therefore strongly support the PMRA’s evidence-based decision to phase out this hazardous pesticide for the sake of long-term environmental sustainability.