By Patrick Meagher
In his army days during the Second World War, Ottawa-area veterinarian Roly Armitage recalled that showers were rare and medical staff would come around and tell the soldiers to loosen their belts. The neck of a large puffer was then put down the backs of the collars of the shirts of each soldier and one shot of DDT dust went all the way to the bottom of their trousers. It was a sure way of killing all body lice and saving the men from scratching.
It was not the last time that Armitage experienced the now-banned DDT. In 1960, he was a veterinarian when he was called to a farm where cows were dropping dead in the field. The farmer had sprayed DDT around the barn and decided to spray the cows annoyed by heel flies. Armitage checked the can of DDT and, sure enough, it had a high concentration of DDT intended only for buildings. But now it had been absorbed by the cows hides and attacked the nervous system. Six cows died.
Until then, Armitage had only known the wonders of DDT. Its benefits were well-known. It had saved millions of lives from typhus and malaria as it killed flies and mosquitoes quickly. One of the lead researchers of DDT won the Nobel prize for medicine as DDT was considered one of the greatest single improvements to public health since clean drinking water became widely available. In the late 1940s, thanks to DDT in Greece alone, the number of malaria cases dropped from two million to 50,000.
When introduced to farming after the war, DDT ensured that barns, for the first time, were free of flies.
Things changed with the birth of the environmentalist movement that declared DDT caused cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a study and determined that DDT was not carcinogenic but, with public pressure, banned it anyway in 1972, just in case.
The EPA pointed to experiments where DDT did cause cancer in mice. But the studies used doses that were up to 1,000 times higher than people would experience in real-life. High doses of salt will also cause cancer in mice. There are rodent carcinogens in almost all fruits and vegetables but we dont ban those.
DDT (Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was eventually banned in Canada in 1990. Why the DDT story is important is because our provincial environment watchdog says so. Environment Commissioner Gord Miller thinks that neonicotinoids (insecticide treatment on corn and soybeans seeds) are worse than DDT and are todays greatest threat to the structure and ecological integrity of the ecosystem. Farm leaders are right to think that Miller exaggerates the problem. But its too late. Millers inflammatory words are now everywhere. A Globe and Mail article on neonics (Nov. 17) reiterated the hysteria by saying that Miller likened neonics to DDT, “a pesticide that was phased out in the 1970s for its devastating environmental impact.”
A special-interest group of doctors, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, funded partly by David Suzuki (another reason to be suspicious), called for neonics to be banned.
Six dead cows showed Armitage that an exorbitant use of DDT is a serious matter. So too with neonics. Shovel enough into bees and you kill them. But there is a big difference between proper use and shovelling it in.
No matter. Our environment commissioner made up his mind after pointing to a meta-analysis study that has been heavily criticized for including studies that are inconclusive and do not represent real-life situations.
Neonics have become the new DDT, even though both products, when used properly, have tremendous societal benefits.
Miller is on record saying that an outright ban on neonics is the answer, even though its a federal call and Health Canada is still studying the matter, with a conclusion expected next year.
Environmentalist groups are chiming in with Miller. The province of Ontario is singing the same song made obvious by its recent announcement of a goal to reduce neonic-treated corn and soybean seeds by 80 per cent within two years.
Farmers can thank noisy environmentalist hysteria for poisoning the well and hampering legitimate research. The first battle in the court of public opinion has already been lost.
Patrick Meagher is editor of Farmers Forum and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.