EPA allowed bee-toxic pesticide despite own scientists’ red flags
19 Jan, 2011
It’s not just the State and Defense departments that are reeling this month from leaked documents. The Environmental Protection Agency now has some explaining to do, too. In place of dodgy dealings with foreign leaders, this case involves the German agrichemical giant Bayer; a pesticide with an unpronounceable name, clothianidin; and an insect species crucial to food production (as well as a food producer itself), the honeybee. And in lieu of a memo leaked to a globetrotting Australian, this one features a document delivered to a long-time Colorado beekeeper.
All of that, plus my favorite crop to fixate on: industrial corn, which blankets 88 million acres of farmland nationwide and produces a bounty of protein-rich pollen on which honeybees love to feast.
It’s The Agency Who Kicked the Beehive, as written by Jonathan Franzen!
An internal EPA memo released Wednesday confirms that the very agency charged with protecting the environment is ignoring the warnings of its own scientists about clothianidin, a pesticide from which Bayer racked up €183 million (about $262 million) in sales in 2009.
Clothianidin has been widely used on corn, the largest U.S. crop, since 2003. Suppliers sell seeds pre-treated with it. Like other members of the neonicotinoid family of pesticides, clothianidin gets “taken up by a plant’s vascular system and expressed through pollen and nectar,” according to Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), which leaked the document along with Beyond Pesticides. That effect makes it highly toxic to a crop’s pests—and also harmful to pollen-hoarding honeybees, which have experienced mysterious annual massive die-offs (known as “colony collapse disorder”) here in the United States at least since 2006.
The colony-collapse phenomenon is complex and still not completely understood. While there appears to be no single cause for the annual die-offs, mounting evidence points to pesticides, and specifically neonicotinoids (derived from nicotine), as a key factor. And neonicotinoids are a relatively new factor in ecosystems frequented by honeybees—introduced in the late 1990s, these systemic insecticides have gained a steadily rising share of the seed-treatment market. It does not seem unfair to observe that the health of the honeybee population has steadily declined over the same period.
According to PANNA, other crops commonly treated with clothianidin include canola, soy, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat—all among the most widely planted U.S. crops. Bayer is now petitioning the EPA to register it for use with cotton and mustard seed.
The document [PDF], leaked to Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald, reveals that EPA scientists have essentially rejected the findings of a study conducted on behalf of Bayer that the agency had used to justify the registration of clothianidin. And they reiterated concerns that widespread use of clothianidin imperils the health of the nation’s honeybees.
I asked an EPA press spokesperson via email if the scientists’ opinion would inspire the agency to remove clothianidin from the market. The spokesperson, who asked not to be named but who communicated on the record on behalf of the agency, replied that clothianidin would retain its registration and be available for use in the spring.
Before we dig deeper into the leaked memo, it’s important to understand the sorry story of how an insecticide known to harm honeybee populations came to blanket a huge swath of U.S. farmland in the first place. It’s nearly impossible not to read it as a tale of a key public watchdog instead heeling to the industry it’s supposed to regulate.