(Beyond Pesticides, April 30, 2014) A new report, released this week by author Michele Simon and Friends of the Earth documents the tactics used by Bayer and other pesticide companies to delay regulatory action on neonicotinoid pesticides —a key contributor to bee declines. The report identifies public relations tactics reminiscent of those used by the tobacco industry, is now being used by Bayer, Syngenta, and Monsanto. Meanwhile, a Congressional hearing on pollinator health, with a panel dominated by industry, ignored the risks pesticides pose to pollinators, and failed to address sustainable solutions to bee decline.
The report, Follow the Honey: 7 Ways Pesticide Companies Are Spinning the Bee Crisis to Protect Profits, uncovers the deceptive public relations tactics used by industry giants Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto, to deflect blame from their products’ contributions to bee declines. The products in question are the chemicals now widely used for seed treatment —neonicotinoids— as well as on residential sites. They are highly toxic to bees and have been linked to bee decline. Last year, the European Union banned the three most widely used neonicotinoids —imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam— based on strong science indicating these insecticides can kill bees outright and make them more vulnerable to pests, pathogens and other stressors. However, these pesticides are still widely used in the U.S., despite massive bee losses that threaten vital food crops, from almonds in California to apples in Washington.
A Congressional hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill, convened on pollinator health, reinforced the report’s findings as no mention of pesticide risks were discussed by the industry dominated panel. The hearing for the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture included no independent scientists on the leading edge of bee research, and no beekeepers who are experiencing firsthand dire losses of bees responsible for pollinating many of our food crops. The hearing is being viewed as just another tactic to marginalize the role of pesticides, the beekeeping industry most impacted by bee losses, and the Saving America’s Pollinators Act– a bill that would suspend the use of four of the most toxic neonicotinoid chemicals until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts a full review of their safety and can make an informed and scientifically-sound decision about their use.
“These pesticide companies use PR tricks straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook to manufacture doubt about science and fool politicians and the public to delay action, while they keep profiting from bee-killing pesticides,” said Ms.Simon, a public health attorney who tracks corporate tactics.
PR tactics revealed in the new report include:
- Spinning the Science and “Manufacturing Doubt” about the role of pesticides: Aggressive efforts to promote the varroa mite and other factors as the leading causes of bee deaths while downplaying or dismissing the role of pesticides. What they don’t say: neonicotinoid pesticides are a key compounding factor that makes bees more vulnerable to the varroa mite and other pests and pathogens.
- “Bee Care” PR Blitz: PR campaigns to create the appearance of being “out in front” and taking a lead role in “saving bees” by promoting “bee health,” building “Bee Care Centers” and launching a “Bee Care Tour” while downplaying the role of pesticides in bee deaths.
- Buying Credibility: Funding scientific studies, cultivating alliances and strategic partnerships with farmers, beekeepers, and agricultural organizations in order to buy credibility for their “anything but pesticides” talking points and position themselves as “friends of the bees.”
- Blaming Farmers and Beekeepers: While denying criticism of pesticides, blaming farmers who use pesticides for any “rare” negative effects on bees, and blaming beekeepers for poor bee care.
- Targeting Children: Propaganda to win young hearts and minds, such as Bayer’s children’s book entitled “Toby and the Bees” in which a friendly beekeeper tells young Toby the bees are getting sick, but “not to worry,” it’s just a problem with mites, and there is special medicine (made by Bayer) to make bees healthy.
Neonicotinoid residues pose a major risk to bees from fugitive dust off seed planters, which EPA has recognized as a causing several bee kills nationwide. These chemicals are particularly dangerous because, in addition to being highly acutely toxic, their use also results in serious sublethal effects when insects are exposed to chronic low doses, as they are through pollen, nectar, and water droplets contaminated with the chemicals, in addition to dust that is released into the air when treated seeds are planted with seed planters across millions of acres of corn fields in the U.S. Neonicotinoids are also systemic pesticides, meaning residues remain in plants, soil and water for very long periods of time. This causes significant problems for the long-term health of individual honey bees, as well as the overall health of honey bee colonies. Effects observed in exposed bees include disruptions in mobility and navigation, feeding behavior, foraging activity, memory and learning, suppressed immune function, and overall decreased hive activity.
Despite a growing body of evidence (read: No Longer a Big Mystery) showing acute, sublethal, and chronic effects of neonicotinoid pesticides in bees, industry giants like Syngenta and Bayer continue to ignore the impact of their products and instead focus on beekeeper practices, nutrition, and viruses and pathogens as the main culprits of bee decline. In fact, both Bayer and Syngenta are challenging the EU’s suspension of their chemicals, claiming the European Commission made its decision on the basis of a flawed process. Beekeepers have protested across Europe and also here in the U.S., calling for a moratorium on bee-killing pesticides. Several beekeepers are co-plaintiffs in a 2013 lawsuit challenging EPA’s failure to protect pollinators. This lawsuit seeks suspension of the registrations of clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which have repeatedly been identified as highly toxic to honey bees and clear contributors to ongoing mortality of bees. The suit challenges EPA’s oversight of these pesticides, as well as EPA’s registration process and labeling deficiencies.
With bee-kill incidents in Oregon last summer, including one that killed more than 50,000 bumblebees, and the bee deaths in California’s almond groves, and ”˜mysterious’ road-side bee deaths in Oregon, as well as astronomical overwintering losses in Ohio, bees continue to face challenges. In spite of recent efforts in Europe to help reverse bee decline by suspending the use of three widely neonicotinoids, U.S. officials have yet to move definitely on the issue. EPA recognizing that these chemicals can pose risks to bees published revised product labels stipulating users not to apply when bees are near. These labels, according to advocates and beekeepers, do not go far enough to protect bees from these chemicals.
Beyond Pesticides and Center for Food Safety have joined forces with the BEE Protective Campaign, with the goal of protecting honey bees and other pollinators from pesticides. The BEE Protective Campaign gives you the tools to help honey bees and other pollinators right in your own community. Here are some ways to take action:
- Plant bee friendly habitat in your own backyard
- Pledge to maintain your yard, park, garden or other green space as organic and pollinator friendly.
- Join us in asking Lowe’s and Home Depot and other leading garden centers to take action and stop the sale of neonicotinoids and plants treated with these chemicals.
- Tell your member of Congress to support the Save America’s Pollinators Act.
- Learn more about the science behind bee declines in No Longer a BIG Mystery
- Use our model resolution to transform your community and raise awareness about pollinator health.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: Friends of the Earth