Is Anyone Minding the Hive?

The alarming decline of our honey bee population in the United States, a concern of environmentalists and farmers for several years now, points to an imminent danger with world-wide implications. The problem, known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), has been well documented by scientists, journalists, and writers like Michael Schacker. It is one that reminds us of the frailty of life itself. As any botanist can testify, without bees to do their pollenation work, the fertilization of plant species would decline precipitously, the human food supply would be compromised, and a key link in the chain of life threatened.

One would think that the prospect of such a calamity would raise red flags among food industry executives and Washington policy makers, prompting an urgent search for answers. But instead of urgency, one senses business as usual and protect-the-bottom-line thinking. While scientific observers have a pretty clear idea of what the cause is and what the solution should be, the major players appear to show little interest in  taking the necessary steps to address the problem.

At the root of the problem is a product, a company, and a government agency. The immediate cause, on the basis of the accumulating evidence, seems to be a recently introduced pesticide in the neonicotinoid group that has been used to treat corn crops. Its corporate creator and disseminator is the Bayer Corporation, which sells a seed for genetically created corn coated with the above pesticide (clothianidin, a member of the neonicotinoid group). And the compliant enabler is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The pesticide itself is known to be highly toxic to bees when used as a dust or spray. The manufacturer claims that this fact is not relevant since, under its new formulation, the chemical is coated directly on the seed (the name of the treated seed is Poncho), making it supposedly incapable of affecting friendly insects. But in practice the new delivery system seems to be no guarantee against harmful affects. Of most concern is that the chemical is released into the plant itself, and thus the toxins are present in small amounts in the pollen and nectar. Empirical observations in both Europe and the U.S. show bee die-offs occurring in areas where the seed has been introduced. The preliminary evidence is, in fact, so striking that a number of European countries, including Germany, Italy, and France, have banned the product outright. But in the U.S., where the product has been in use since 2003, reports of bee die-offs have generally fallen on deaf ears.

Bayer, the company which produces the product, is a major player accustomed to getting its way. It is one of six major corporations (Monsanto, Dow, BASF, Syngenta, and Dupont being the other five) that have come to control much of international agro-business in recent years. These giants now dominate the world’s seed, pesticide, and agricultural biotech industries.  Their practices, involving cross licensing agreements that allow them to collude with each other and exclude small competitors, are unregulated by any national or international organization. Their commercial leverage enables them to sell homogenized products in large volume that, once established, are very difficult to compete with or challenge. Typical of these new products are integrated lines of chemicals, seeds, and genetic traits that are patented and “engineered to go together.” Poncho is a representive of this new kind of product, one that has contributed substantially to Bayer’s bottom line and can be expected to have the company’s full-throated defense.

And then there is the EPA. The EPA was well aware of the toxicity of clothianidin to bees prior to registering the product and even knew of the prospective danger of pesticide residues in the pollen and nectar of corn plants. And yet inexplicably, putting the cart before the horse, the Agency consented to a conditional registration of the new product in 2003 prior to any life-cycle study by the applicant. It merely stipulated that Bayer produce a study that verified its claims within a year. That study was delayed until 2007, during which time Bayer was busily securing and extending its market share for the product. And its eventual study, which aimed to show that the new product had no effect on bees, was widely ridiculed by scientists as improperly set up and woefully inadequate. Indeed, an unpublicized study of EPA scientists in 2010 showed it to be fundamentally unsound. But by this time, the forces of inertia had set in and a reverse set of criteria had taken hold that put the burden of proof on opponents to demonstrate that neonicotinoid pesticides should be banned, a requirement that would involve years of scientific trials!

At the heart of this slow-moving train-wreck of a process, is the unbelievable coziness between the regulators and the regulated. In this case, the elephant in the room is the American Chemical Council (ACC), of which Bayer is a leading member. Lobbying groups like the ACC try to keep a low profile, but evidence of their influence surfaces from time to time. For instance, the group was the subject of a Senate Committee investigation in 2008 for its attempts to control the membership of expert review panels hired to determine the safety of products of ACC associated companies. In the political arena, the group secures allies by donating generously to political candidates. Past recipients of ACC largesse have included George Bush and the figure who later became his EPA director, New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. How much these favors may have become factors in the original approval of Poncho in 2003 under Whitman’s watch, and the inertia that followed it, is anybody’s guess.

There should be little doubt, however, that the process is gravely flawed. Caution on the side of public health, not a presumption in favor of the manufacturer, is an imperative in EPA decisions. A change in the way things are done will require a revolution in thinking and behavior. In the meantime, the fate of the honey bees hangs in the balance.

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