By Susan Johnson
It’s no secret that honeybees are in trouble. But researchers differ on the major cause of the problem. Something in the environment is apparently to blame, but depending on whom you ask, you will get different answers. And perhaps just as important, we need to ask which company pays the researchers. To whom are they obligated?
Friends of the Earth, in the report, “Follow the Honey: 7 ways pesticide companies are spinning bee crisis to protect profits,” claims that three pesticide companies are using a smokescreen of benevolence toward bees while ignoring the role their pesticides play in the demise of hives. The report was written by Michelle Simon and other contributors.
Restrictions on pesticides in Europe
Neonicotinoids (also called neonics) are used as seed treatments on more than 140 crops, including corn, soy, wheat and canola seeds. Neonics are systemic pesticides that are taken up through roots and leaves, going through the entire plant, including pollen and nectar. Many studies have proved that neonicotinoids kill bees outright by attacking their nervous systems, while low levels of exposure disrupt foraging abilities, navigation, learning, communication, memory, and suppress bees’ immune systems. Though other factors such as pests, diseases, loss of forage and habitat and changing climate may contribute to bee decline, neonicotinoid pesticides are a core problem.
As evidence accumulated that bees were being harmed, these insecticides were restricted in France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia. In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a scientific review stating that neonicotioids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and the industry-sponsored science on which regulatory agencies have relied is inadequate to assess potential impacts on pollinators.
The EFSA recommended that the three most-used neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, clothianidin and thimethoxam) should not be used on crops atttractive to bees. Therefore, the European Commission implemented a continent-wide two-year suspension on these insecticides. This action is the first and only wide-reaching restriction on these pesticides due to science-based concerns of toxicity.
In response to these restrictions and scientists’ growing concerns, major or multinational petrochemical and seed corporations have developed sophisticated, multi-pronged public relations campaigns in an attempt to sow doubt and establish controversy about the role of pesticides in recent bee declines.
Friends of the Earth claims that Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto are diverting problem of neonic pesticides while creating an elaborate appearance of taking a lead role in saving bees. A strong lobbying effort and even stronger litigation tactics pack a war chest to limit and defeat the use of pesticides.
“Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto are using a ‘kitchen sink’ approach to divert attention from the problem of neonic pesticides while creating an elaborate appearance of being ‘out in front’ and taking a lead role in ‘saving bees,’” the report reads. Accompanying these tactics are relentless lobbying and new litigation based on similar messages of diversion and denial. Their goals: manufacture doubt about their products’ contribution to the bee crisis and delay action, or defeat bans or limits on neonic pesticides, in order to allow them to continue profiting from these products as long as possible.”
The report compares this public relations campaign to one out of the tobacco industry’s playbook, used for years to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking by showing doubt about the actual risks. This strategy was documented in the book, Doubt is Their Product by David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.
Based in Switzerland, Syngenta consistently ranks among the world’s’top petrochemical and seed corporations. With sales of $14.2 billion in 2012, Syngenta stands to lose significant profits from its leading neonic, thiamethoxam, worth $627 million in sales.
Germany-based Bayer’s Crop Protection products (including herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and seed growth) topped $10 billion in 2012. Its leading neonic, imidacloprid, is worth $1.1 billion, and its shared interest in clothianidin is worth over $439 million, so Bayer could lose even more than Syngenta.
While Monsanto does not manufacture neonics per se, as the world’s largest seed corporation and a top agrochemical manufacturer, it has much at stake on the bee crisis because it sells seeds pre-treated with neonics. Sales in Monsanto’s Seeds and Genomics segment brought in $9.8 billion in 2012. In the U.S., roughly 90 percent of corn is treated with neonicotinoids. Monsanto promotes Acceleron as designer seed treatment for its genetically-modified seeds – corn, soy and cotton. Several Acceleron seed treatments contain imidacloprid and clothianidin.
Diverting attention from pesticides
An argument by Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto casts doubts on the role pesticides have on the bees. The companies claim varroa mites, pathogens and bee forage take bigger tolls on bees than responsibly administered pesticides. Improper use of otherwise safe chemicals can result in detrimental effects on the sustainability of bees, the companies claim.
In the European Union, where criticism and the regulation of pesticides and corporate power are more severe than in the U.S., Germany-based Bayer Crop Science has waged a sophisticated public relations campaign to divert attention from its neonicotinoid products.
When the European Commission declared a ban on three widely-used neonicotinoid pesticides (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) in April 2013, Bayer called the restriction “disproportionate,” claiming it diverts attention from other causes of bee die-offs. The European Commission could have made the decision to focus on issues such as the varroa mite, bee diseases and viruses, and the need to provide more nectar-rich habitats, Bayer claims. The company asserts that products containing pesticides have a long track record of safe use, and as a result, European agriculture is less sustainable.
In May 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a joint Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health concluding, among other things, that pesticide exposure to pollinators is still an area of research and concern, particularly the systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids.
Bayer responded, claiming,“of particular concern noted in the report is the recognition of the impact of parasites, especially the varroa mite, and associated diseases on bee health and the need to adopt best management practices to improve bee genetics and enhance nutritional opportunities, while minimizing potential exposure from the use of agricultural pesticides.”
Annette Schurmann, one of Bayer’s leading spokesmen on bee health, ignored pesticides when discussing key threats to bees. She focused on “disease pathogens such as parasites and varroa mites, and the growing decline in areas where bees can collect pollen and nectar; … climate change… bee inbreeding problems.” Helmut Schramm, head of Bayer CropScience Germany, added: “It’s generally known that the varroa mite is the main enemy of the bee.”
Bee Care Centers
Bayer says that its Bee Care Centers focus on Integrated Pest Management for the many causes affecting bee health, such as parasites like the varroa mite, predators, diseases, seasonal management, and environmental stressors and the active promotion of bee-responsible use of Bayer products along with communication activities worldwide.
April 15, 2014, Bayer opened its new $2.4 million North American Bayer Bee Care Center in Triangle Park, N.C.
“Honey bees are essential to modern agriculture production, and our North American Bee Care Centrer will help facilitate the research needed to help honey bees meet the increasing global demand for crop pollination… we understand the many complex issues affecting honeybees’ ability to thrive, including disease, parasites such as varroa mites, genetics and more,” Bayer stated in a press release last month.
The release adds, “Products and technology developed at the Center will control parasitic mites in honey hives, help manage a Healthy Bees program, assess the safety of crop protection products to bees and much more. Other activities conducted on-site include a Sentinel Hive monitoring program, varroagate testing and development, varroa resistance monitoring and varroacide screening.”
This multi-pronged PR effort has included social media outreach that points to the mite issue as the main threat.
The day of the EU’s vote on its neonicotinoid moratorium, Syngenta, responded, calling the vote a failure, citing what it called poor science among member nations and lack of evidence necessary to look further into the real causes of bee declines. In July 2013, Syngenta said it was increasing its public relations budget in the wake of the EU’s action to ban neonics. Syngenta has also been working to de-emphasize the role of pesticides in bee declines. In a “Plight of the Bees” page on its website, for instance, Syngenta lists 11 causes of bee crisis and ColonyCollapse Disorder, with only brief mention of pesticides in the context of farmers misusing them.
Efforts to blame anything but pesticides on the bee crisis date back to at least 2009, when the University of Warwick announced a major research initiative on the bee crisis, with substantial funding from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. As revealed in The Guardian, the study examined almost every culprit except pesticides. Of course, the research council was supporting the study in partnership with Syngenta, which provided 10 percent of the project funds.
In May 2013, about the same time the USDA published its report implicating neonics, Bayer CropScience broke ground on its North American Bee Care Center at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Through this, Bayer engaged in a PR strategy to shape media coverage of the story. While Bayer’s North Carolina site was being constructed, Bayer was already producing Bee Care Center videos, such as “We Care for Bees: Challenge and Solutions,” featuring company executives declaring their passion for bee health. In 2013, Bayer launched its mobile Bee Care Tour at the Ag Issues Forum and Commodity Classic in Orlando, Fla. This specially-wrapped vehicle and interactive exhibit traveled to university agriculture schools and farm communities across the Midwest. Everyone who visited the exhibit had the opportunity to commit to be aq Champion for Bee Health. The tour continues in 2014, with stops at Oregon State University, Washington State University, University of California-Davis, South Dakota State University, and Purdue University. In June, the Bee Care Tour will be in Washington, D.C., for National Pollinators Week. Bayer has also created a Bayer Bee Care Community Leadership Award.
From the May 14-20, 2014, issue