Whistle-Blower Claims the USDA Suppressed Research on Bee-Killing Pesticide
After a government scientist began raising serious questions about the environmental impact of a popular pesticide that experts widely believe is helping to drive the drastic decline in America’s bee populations, he claims he got stung—and stung bad.
Jonathan Lundgren, an 11-year entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, filed an official whistle-blower complaint this week, alleging he was harassed and retaliated against after speaking out in the media last year about research he conducted that points to the potentially insidious effects of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics.
Since neonics began to be widely marketed in the mid-1990s, their use has exploded. Whereas a scant amount was used by farmers in 1995, today an estimated 6 million pounds of the pesticides are applied to fields every year—and that doesn’t take into account the staggering amount of seeds planted that are pretreated with the stuff. According to a report from the Center for Food Safety, “almost all of the corn seed and approximately half of the soybeans in the U.S. are treated with neonicotinoids,” and upwards of 90 percent of canola planted in North America is as well.
Coincidentally, as the use of neonics has gone up, the populations of key pollinators such as bees and monarch butterflies have plummeted. Although neonics can kill bees outright, many scientists believe it’s chronic exposure to the chemicals that imperils bees—by weakening their immune system, for example, or causing them to become disoriented and unable to find their way back to their hives.
But with an estimated $3 billion or more in neonic sales at stake on the global market, big agrichemical companies such as Bayer and Syngenta have adamantly denied any link between their pesticides and the devastating declines of bees and other pollinators.
That may very well be what landed Lundgren in hot water.
The senior research scientist made headlines by discussing his work regarding neonics, including two studies that concluded that using neonic-treated seed did not lead to higher crop yields for farmers. After that, Lundgren claims, “USDA managers blocked publication of his research, barred him from talking to the media, and disrupted operations at the laboratory he oversaw,” according to Harvest Public Media, which reviewed the complaint Lundgren’s attorneys filed with the federal Merit Systems Protection Board this week.
“Having research published in prestigious journals and being invited to present before the National Academy of Sciences should be sources of official pride, not punishment,” one of those attorneys, Laura Dumais, staff counsel at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told The Washington Post. “Politics inside USDA have made entomology into a most dangerous discipline.”
For its part, the USDA has declined to discuss Lundgren’s case, but the department issued a statement that read, in part, “We take the integrity of our scientists seriously, and we recognize how critical that is to maintaining widespread confidence in our research among the scientific community, policymakers and the general public.”
Yet word among the scientific community seems to be that the USDA isn’t doing such a bang-up job fostering a sense of scientific “integrity.” As the Post reported, a study by Scott W. Fausti of South Dakota State University on the unexpected environmental and economic consequences of the widespread adoption of genetically modified corn in the U.S., published in the most recent issue of Environmental Science & Policy, carried this telling footnote from the author: “I would like to acknowledge Dr. Jonathan G. Lundgren's contribution to this manuscript. Dr. Lundgren is an entomologist employed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). However, the ARS has required Dr. Lundgren to remove his name as joint first author from this article. I believe this action raises a serious question concerning policy neutrality toward scientific inquiry.”