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Quebec corn producers warned to reduce pesticide use as contamination of watercourses increases


by Susanne J. Brown



The pesticides currently being used by Quebec's 6,000 corn producers on more than 350,000 cultivated hectares are seeping directly into watercourses and destroying aquatic life, states an environment ministry report released in Saint-Hyacinthe in mid-December. And every year, as more acreage are planted the problem escalates.

The solution to help ease the increasing environmental headache is for the province's corn producers to drastically reduce the amount of herbicides they currently use, as well as opt for more sustainable cultivation practices, said assistant deputy minister of the environment Michel Paradis when he made the report public.

The report, entitled "Contamination of water flows by pesticides in intensively cultivated corn regions of Quebec," was done by MEFQ biologist David Berryman and geography specialist Isabelle Giroux.

The study is based on samples taken in 1992 and 1993 from 13 watercourses situated in basins flowing into the Bécancour, Nicolet, Saint-François, Yamaska, Richelieu, Chateauguay, Saint-Régie and Tortue Rivers. Most of the sampling was done in the first half of the summer and usually after heavy rainfalls.


Results from the study reveal a high level of herbicides, particularly atrazine, in the eight basins. Herbicides such as linuron, metribuzine and butilate and several insecticides were also found, but less frequently.

"Atrazine levels frequently surpass the 30 per cent criteria for the protection of aquatic life," states the report. "Moreover, there are often four or five pesticides (sometimes as many as 13) present at the same time in the watercourses tested."

The pesticide levels exceed recommended water quality levels and have the potential to adversely affect aquatic wildlife, but to what extent is still unknown and further study is needed. Excessive atrazine stops the growth of aquatic plants, such as plankton, and causes toxicity in fish, said biologist David Berryman in a CBC Radio Noon interview.

"There is a clear relationship between acres of corn and the level of pesticides found in the water," he said.

The pesticides came into the rivers in "peaks," said Berryman, which clearly indicates that the contamination resulted from routine use of the products in the field, and not from random dumping.

"The more corn there is, the more pesticides there are," he noted.


No threat

The study also shows that many pesticides are regularly detected in drinking water situated close to intensively cultivated corn. The preliminary results indicate occasional levels of atrazine in excess of guidelines for drinking water, but the existence of the pesticide "is not yet a threat to public health," said Berryman.

"Farmers are concerned as anyone else about the state of the environment," said John Brown, a corn grower and pesticide dealer in Howick, southwest of Montreal, in the same CBC interview

Other products are now on the market to replace atrazine as the primary ingredient for weed control. Combinations of other ingredients in the newer products "will diminish the use of atrazine," he said.

However, Berryman said, the solution is not simply to replace atrazine with another herbicide. Farmers must find ways to work with less herbicides altogether.

A lasting solution would be to introduce more crop rotations and banding to reduce pesticide use, he said.

If farmers are able to employ this type of preventative approach to pesticide use they will be more in line with the pesticide law that was introduced in 1992 that calls for a 50 per cent reduction of pesticide use by the year 2000.



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