From cabinet to CropLife: Menzies avoids ethical scrutiny over new job as top pesticide and GMO lobbyist

September 1, 2014

Since last November, Sierra Club Canada’s John Bennett has been raising the alarm about the appointment of Ted Menzies, the former Conservative cabinet minister, as president and CEO of CropLife Canada. Menzies announced his new job a mere week after resigning as MP for the Alberta riding of Macleod with a note to say he was “moving on.”  

“Is the pesticide industry attempting to influence a pending decision on the future of bee-killing pesticides or is it a coincidence?” asked Bennett at the time, pointing out the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) and Canadian beekeepers wanted action. Menzies’s new job would be to get in the way.

CropLife Canada is the key industry lobby group on issues such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), labelling of foods containing GMOs, the use of bee-killing neonicotinoid (“neonic”) pesticides, among other food and agriculture issues.  The association’s board of directors includes executives from Bayer and Syngenta, the primary manufacturers of neonics worldwide. In August 2013, both companies filed separate court challenges to a two-year suspension of neonic pesticides in the European Union.

In mid-June, Sierra Club Canada requested that federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson conduct a full examination of Menzies’s appointment under Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act, which determines what former public office holders can do after leaving government. As a former minister of state, Menzies was supposed to be subject to a five-year ban on lobbying and other post-employment restrictions covered by the act. 

Bennett told me in mid-July that Commissioner Dawson “declined to investigate because we didn’t present definitive evidence” of any wrongdoing. “Her standard would mean police shouldn’t investigate 911 calls because there is no proof of a crime. We will formally reply when Parliament gets back [this autumn],” he said.  

Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, told me that Menzies’s appointment to CropLife Canada “will help solidify political support for the industry’s priorities [and] help counter the growing voice of public concern over GMOs and pesticides.” She wondered, “How is the public to have a voice when corporate money can get so close to the corridors of power?”

Corridors of power

In its war on science, the Harper government has made major cuts to jobs and funding for the PMRA, the division of Health Canada that regulates neonics and other pesticides (see “Canadian, U.S. bees left unprotected from deadly pesticides” in the July–August 2013 Monitor). According to the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the union representing government scientists and other federal and provincial government employees, as of July 2014 just under 100 PMRA jobs have been affected by recent budget cuts and most were biologists.

In September 2013, the PMRA had concluded that use of neonics is unsustainable because they kill bees. But only months later, and following Menizes’s move to CropLife Canada, the agency greatly expanded the approved uses of neonics despite mounting evidence of their damage.

On announcing Menzies’s appointment, CropLife Canada chair Kamel Beliazi said the former Conservative MP “will provide visionary leadership for the industry, in line with the new strategic plan laid out by the board of directors.” Apparently, that plan includes a way to postpone any real federal action on neonics.

On July 15, the Alberta Beekeepers Commission (ABC) announced that CropLife Canada is one of the funders, along with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, of a new Canada-wide four-year “health surveillance” study grant for ABC to determine “the most common bee pests and diseases” in all ten provinces. That means no federal action to save bees will be taken until the study is completed in 2018.

An international panel of 50 independent scientists called the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides has released a major study saying some 800 research papers provide conclusive evidence that neonics are causing the mass death of bees and other pollinators while posing significant risk to earthworms, birds, amphibians, other insects, and to whole ecosystems. The task force urged regulatory agencies to apply more precautionary principles and further tighten regulations on neonicotinoids, and to start planning for a global phase-out or strong reduction in the global use of the pesticides.  

Corporate makers of pesticides say that bees are being killed by viruses, mites, harsh winters and loss of habitat, and that more studies on neonics need to be done before any action is taken. The National Farmers Union, however, has called for the federal government to implement a five-year moratorium on the use of neonic seed treatments in field crops.

Ontario action

Provinces don’t have the power to ban the use of neonics and other pesticides, but they can control or ban their sale, as Ontario has done with lawn chemicals. More than four million acres of crops in Ontario are treated with neonics, and now the province wants to be the first to restrict their use.

In July, Ontario’s minister of agriculture, Jeff Leal, announced the development of “a system that targets the use of neonicotinoid-treated seed only to areas or circumstances where there is demonstrated need.” Commercial growers will have until 2015 to apply for permits to continue using neonic-treated seed.

Bennett told me the plan resulted from lobbying by the beekeepers and Sierra Club Canada. But like the federal push for re-regulation, the Ontario plan faces corporate resistance.

The Grain Farmers of Ontario told the Globe and Mail in July that Ontario’s proposal should be put on hold. They want the province to wait until various research projects have ended, including a three-year field test of new planting methods adopted last spring.

Then on July 10, the Conference Board of Canada issued a report, financed by CropLife Canada and the Grain Farmers of Ontario, warning that restricting the use of neonics in Ontario could reduce the revenues of Ontario grain farmers by $630 million annually.

Ontario’s plan has also been criticized by the Council of Canadians, which has said Ontario could have banned the sale of neonics temporarily, as recommended by a government-appointed panel.

“Instead of solving the problem, the provincial government seems happy to offer half measures and hush money,” wrote Michael Butler in a blog on July 7, pointing out that the province will pay the honey industry $105 per hive to those who lose 40% of their bees.

Claiming that Ottawa and provincial governments are “not fully interested” in protecting pollinators, Butler suggested that municipalities could at least ban neonics on municipal land if they can demonstrate that a proposed by-law “protects the economic, social and environmental well-being of their particular community.”

In May, Ontario’s Prince Edward County became the first municipality to ban neonics, and the city of Hamilton is considering it.

GMO food labelling

CropLife Canada has also long been opposed to mandatory labelling of GMO food products. With Menzies at the helm of the lobby group, that industry position becomes further entrenched at the federal level, said Sharratt of CBAN.

The MP’s move to CropLife “is a stronger attempt to protect the industry from public demands that go against industry interest,” she told me. “The lack of [GMO] labelling is a symptom of a larger problem where the public is completely shut out of this issue, with no democratic debate or even access to the science behind GM food approvals. Labelling would provide some long-overdue transparency for consumers in the marketplace, but it won’t improve Canada’s weak regulation, unless public pressure builds as a result.”

Mandatory labelling of GMOs has been in place in Europe since April 2004. As the U.S.-based Organic Consumers Association has revealed, the strict rules have meant that major processed foods and drinks manufacturers including General Mills, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Starbucks and even McDonald’s are GMO-free in Europe.

To avoid a consumer backlash, these companies have eliminated GMO ingredients from their food and drink products in Europe. But in North America, the very same corporations are trying to derail GMO labelling legislation being considered by 29 U.S. states as of June.

In April, Vermont became the first U.S. state to pass a no-strings-attached, mandatory GMO labelling law that requires compliance by 2016. Maine and Connecticut passed similar bills in 2013 but they require four or five other neighbouring states to do the same before the legislation can be enacted. The Vermont law also makes it illegal to call any food product containing GMOs “natural” or “all natural.” 

Monsanto, along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers have filed lawsuits against Vermont. Industry groups are also lobbying the Obama administration to outlaw state-level GMO labelling policies.

CropLife Canada supports a system of voluntary labelling for GMO food products, which the Canadian federal government adopted in 2004. Critics have pointed out that since then, not a single processed food product has been labelled to indicate the presence of GMO ingredients, even though most processed foods contain them.

Both the NDP and Green Party of Canada call for mandatory GMO labelling. The NDP incorporated the issue into its pan-Canadian food strategy, “Everybody Eats,” launched in June. The strategy calls on the federal government to develop, among other labelling standards, “clear, accurate and verifiable labelling for products that have undergone genetic modification.”

Joyce Nelson is an award-winning freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.