Hidden Emails Reveal Pesticide Conspiracy

By | February 18, 2020

As explained by the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies, “neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world.”1 If you were to visit a conventional farm, you’d likely see evidence of their use in the form of brightly colored red corn seeds and blue soybean seeds, which are color-coded to denote treatment with neonicotinoids.

The majority of such seeds come pretreated with the chemicals to ward off insect pests, but in so doing they’re harming pollinators like bees at alarming rates.

To get an idea of just how widespread their usage is, a report published in Agricultural & Environmental Letters noted that in the U.S. neonicotinoids were used on “79% to 100% of corn acres” by 2011, but despite this, application of the pesticide still doubled between 2011 and 2014.2

“Because the increased use on corn cannot be explained by expanding treated acres, it must correspond to increasing per-seed application rates. Notably, this increase has come as concerns about nontarget effects and resistance have mounted,” the researchers noted.3

This statement is noteworthy, especially as it’s been revealed that “a sophisticated information war” kept neonicotinoids on the market despite scientists expressing grave concerns.4

An exposé by The Intercept, which obtained lobbying documents and emails, revealed an extensive playbook used by the pesticide industry to downplay the pesticides’ harms by influencing beekeepers, regulators and academia. Meanwhile, bees and other pollinators are still in decline and the pesticide industry has gotten richer:

“The global neonic market generated $ 4.42 billion in revenue in 2018, roughly doubling over the previous decade, according to new figures provided to The Intercept from Agranova, a research firm that tracks the industry.”

US Embraces Neonicotinoids as Other Countries Ban Them

Entomologists Dennis vanEngelsdorp, now a chief apiary inspector in Pennsylvania, and Jeffrey Pettis, a former USDA government scientist, were among the first to suggest a link between neonicotinoids and bee deaths.

They exposed bees to very small, sublethal doses of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid, then exposed them to the gut parasite Nosema. The findings were clear that exposure to the pesticide, even at very low levels, increased the bees’ susceptibility to the parasite.

The researchers explained, “We clearly demonstrate an increase in pathogen growth within individual bees reared in colonies exposed to one of the most widely-used pesticides worldwide, imidacloprid, at below levels considered harmful to bees.”5

One of the observed effects in bees is a weakening of the bee’s immune system.6 Forager bees may bring pesticide-laden pollen back to the hive, where it’s consumed by all of the bees.

About six months later, their immune systems fail, and they end up contracting secondary infections from parasites, mites, viruses, fungi and bacteria. The chemicals have also been shown to trigger immunosuppression in the queen bee, possibly leading to an impaired ability to resist diseases.7

The European Union temporarily banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2013, and banned neonicotinoids for outdoor use for good in 2018 due to environmental concerns, specifically the chemicals’ impact on the bee population.8 The chemicals are still widely used in the U.S., however, and this is largely due to concerted efforts by the pesticide industry. The Intercept reported:9

“In the U.S., however, industry dug in, seeking not only to discredit the research but to cast pesticide companies as a solution to the problem. Lobbying documents and emails, many of which were obtained through open records requests, show a sophisticated effort over the last decade by the pesticide industry to obstruct any effort to restrict the use of neonicotinoids.

Bayer and Syngenta, the largest manufacturers of neonics, and Monsanto, one of the leading producers of seeds pretreated with neonics, cultivated ties with prominent academics, including vanEngelsdorp, and other scientists who had once called for a greater focus on the threat posed by pesticides.”

Entomologist Exposing Neonicotinoids’ Risks Changed His Tune

Initially, vanEngelsdorp made numerous media appearances suggesting that pesticides were among the likely culprits in bee deaths, but then did an about-face, in which he started to downplay their role or brush them off as a risk entirely.

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“In the following years, vanEngelsdorp used his voice to dismiss concerns with neonics in the media. His shift in rhetoric coincided with a push by the pesticide industry, in response to rising calls for pesticide restrictions to stem bee losses, began a push to rebrand itself as bee-friendly,” according to The Intercept.10

He joined Monsanto’s Honey Bee Advisory Council around that time, and received at least $ 700,000 in funding from Project Apis m., a Bayer-funded foundation, for his nonprofit, the Bee Informed Project. In 2013, vanEngelsdorp also went on to edit a study used by Syngenta to claim no link between neonicotinoids and poor bee health.11

A group of entomologists later called out the study, saying it had “a number of major deficiencies regarding the study design, the protocol and the evaluation of results,”12 as did a group of scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who wrote:13

“Conclusions derived from inspection of the data were not just misleading in this case but are unacceptable in principle, for if data are inadequate for a formal analysis (or only good enough to provide estimates with wide confidence intervals) then they are bound to be inadequate as a basis for reaching any sound conclusions.

Given that the data in this case are largely uninformative with respect to the treatment effect, any conclusions reached from such informal approaches can do little more than reflect the prior beliefs of those involved.”

The Intercept revealed a number of other questionable actions by vanEngelsdorp over the years, including:14

  • Lending his name to advocacy efforts on behalf of the pesticide industry
  • Engaging with executives of Bayer’s Bee Care Center to suggest ways to minimize annual hive loss calculations when speaking to reporters
  • Avoiding the mention of pesticides as a factor in bee deaths in a mini-documentary series called “Fight to Save the Mighty Honeybee”
  • Citing Varroa mites, not pesticides, as a driver of bee deaths, in part to attempt to defeat legislation to ban neonic-based products for consumers in the state of Maryland
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Industry Tries to Use Varroa Mites as a Scapegoat

Varroa mites are indeed dangerous to bees, feeding off their fat and blood and potentially transmitting a virus called deformed wing virus.15 The mites can be deadly and have been implicated in colony collapses, but there’s also a connection between the mites and neonicotinoids.

Bees rid themselves of Varroa mites by regular grooming, but research suggests exposure to neonicotinoids at low doses leads to drops in self-grooming behavior in bees, leaving them more susceptible to disease from the mites.16 It’s also possible that bees become more susceptible to the mites due to neonicotinoids’ adverse effects on immunity. According to The Intercept:17

“The greatest public relations coup has been the push to reframe the debate around bee decline to focus only on the threat of Varroa mites, a parasite native to Asia that began spreading to the U.S. in the 1980s. The mite is known to rapidly infest bee hives and carry a range of infectious diseases.

CropLife America, among other groups backed by pesticide companies, has financed research and advocacy around the mite — an effort designed to muddy the conversation around pesticide use. Meanwhile, research suggests the issues are interrelated; neonics make bees far more susceptible to mite infestations and attendant diseases.”

This is yet another area of controversy surrounding vanEngelsdorp, who gave a presentation in 2016 at a summit for corporate representatives and researchers involved in the bee crisis. His presentation suggested Varro mites, not pesticides, were to blame for colony losses.

“I was shocked,” Luke Goembel, an official with the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, told The Intercept, “because the journals are full of research that describes many avenues by which pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, almost certainly lead to hive losses.”18

Former Government Scientist Demoted After Speaking the Truth

Pettis, the former USDA scientist who worked with vanEngelsdorp, is now president at Apimondia, a beekeeper conference. He also experienced industry pressure to speak only about Varroa mites. His career was suddenly derailed after he presented testimony about neonicotinoids before the House Agriculture Committee in 2014, and didn’t stick to “the script.” As reported by The Washington Post in 2016:19

“Pettis had developed what he describes as a ‘significant’ line of research showing that neonics compromise bee immunity. But in his opening remarks before Congress, he focused on the threat posed by the varroa mite, often put forward by chemical company representatives as the main culprit behind bee deaths.

Only under questioning by subcommittee Chairman Austin Scott (R-Ga.) did Pettis shift. Even if varroa were eliminated tomorrow, he told Scott, ‘we’d still have a problem.’ Neonics raise pesticide concerns for bees ‘to a new level,’ he said. About two months later, Pettis was demoted, losing all management responsibilities …

Pettis said, the USDA’s congressional liaison told him that the Agriculture Committee wanted him to restrict his testimony to the varroa mite. ‘In my naivete,’ he said, ‘I thought there were going to be other people addressing different parts of the pie. I felt used by the whole process, used by Congress.’

The hearing was ‘heavily weighted toward industry,’ he said, ‘and they tried to use me as a scientist, as a way of saying, ‘See, it’s the varroa mite,’ when that’s not how I see it.’ … He said he walked up to Scott afterward, to make small talk, and the congressman ‘said something about how I hadn’t ‘followed the script.'”

USDA Whistleblower Rebuked for Neonicotinoid Research

USDA whistleblower Jonathan Lundgren, Ph.D., is another scientist who faced retaliation when he started talking about his research, which showed neonicotinoids cause decline in bee and Monarch butterfly populations.20

After publicly discussing his findings, Lundgren claimed that he faced suspensions at work and an investigation of misconduct that he believes was industry motivated. “I guess I started asking the wrong questions, pursuing risk assessments of neonicotinoids on a lot of different field crop seeds used throughout the U.S. and how they were affecting nontarget species like pollinators,” Lundgren told The Intercept.21

Lundgren went on to run Blue Dasher Farm in South Dakota, which is looking for natural pest control methods and crop rotation for agriculture. He believes most research is now industry influenced, noting, “Universities have become dependent on extramural funds, entire programs are bankrolled by these pesticide companies, chemical companies.”22

Neonicotinoids Persist in the Environment

Researchers screened oilseed crops in the EU for neonicotinoids during the five-year moratorium. They found neonicotinoids in all the years it was banned in bee-attractive crops, with residue levels depending on soil type and increasing with rainfall. They concluded that this poses a “considerable risk for nectar foraging bees” and supports “the recent extension of the moratorium to a permanent ban in all outdoor crops.”23

There are other concerns as well, like the fact that planting neonicotinoid seeds kills off insects that prey on slugs — prominent corn and soybean pests — thereby reducing crop yields.24

An investigation by the U.S. EPA even found that treating soybean seeds with neonicotinoids provides no significant financial or agricultural benefits for farmers.25 As research has demonstrated, regenerative farming improves biodiversity of the soil, does not harm the environment and increases farmers’ net profits.

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You can get involved by actively seeking out and supporting organic, regenerative farmers, who have decided that avoiding chemical-treated seeds and excessive chemical spraying is essential to nurturing soil health, protecting the environment and growing nutritious food. You can also consider converting part of your own yard into an edible, bee-friendly landscape using organic and regenerative methods.