Friday, December 31, 2010

Disappearing Bees and Bayer: What the EPA Doesn't Want Us to Know.

Disappearing Bees and Bayer: A Deadly Combo. What the EPA Doesn't Want Us to Know.

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A leaked document reveals that the EPA is disregarding findings 'that widespread use of clothianidin imperils the health of the nation's honeybees' says a Colorado beekeeper, the recipient of the document.

If the Environmental Protection Agency had evidence that a specific pesticide might be at least in part responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder, a dreadful syndrome named for the devastation of the bee population, you would expect the agency to act on that information. Perhaps it would propose banning the offensive substance outright or, at a minimum, suspend its use until more facts were gathered. However, according to Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald, the EPA is doing just the opposite; upgrading the pesticide's classification and continuing to make it available.

By now, you've probably got enough disorders etched into your brain to fill a mini Medical Dictionary. Well, move over Major Depressive Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cognitive Disorder, Hearing Disorder, Metabolic Disorder, etc. etc. etc., and make room for Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Colony Collapse Disorder has nothing to do with the collapse of the Greek Empire, or the sun actually setting on the British Empire, or even with the colonization of the New World. According to the Pesticide Action Network (, Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, "is the name given to the mysterious decline of honeybee populations around the world beginning around 2006." Since that time, "one-third of the U.S. honeybee population has died off or disappeared (more than twice what is normal)."

And while it is unclear exactly what has caused this serious problem, "a range of evidence points to sub-lethal pesticide exposure": "Neonicotinoids are a particularly suspect class of insecticides; so much so that Italy and France have banned or restricted their use to protect their honeybee populations. This class of insecticides is highly neurotoxic to bees, and works by disabling insects' immune and nervous systems."

Tom Philpott, a senior food and agriculture writer for Grist, an online environmental magazine, recently pointed out that a leaked document (nothing to do with Julian Assange's WikiLeaks) "involves the German agrichemical giant Bayer; a pesticidewith an unpronounceable name, clothianidin; and an insect species crucial to food production (as well as a food producer itself), the honeybee." This leaked document, was delivered to Tom Theobald, a long-time Colorado beekeeper.

Philpott pointed out that a recently released internal EPA memo "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."

According to Philpott, the document, leaked to 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." ?

Despite this conclusion, Philpott reported, an EPA "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."

Part of the explanation for the EPA's apparent inaction on the pesticide stems from the fact that all this started back during the Bush Administration. It also may be that a recent New York Times article headlined "Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery," reported that "A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the [bee] problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana in the online science journal PLoS One."

It may also be that the agency -- as it is currently constructed -- which has been under attack from a number of conservative organizations, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, isn't quite up to the task of taking on a huge petro-chemical company like Bayer.

"In the EPA's dealings with Bayer on this particular insecticide," Philpott noted, "the agency charged with protecting the environment has consistently made industry-friendly decisions that contradict the conclusions of its own scientists -- and threaten to do monumental harm to our food system by wiping out its key pollinators."

(To better understand the relationship between the EPA and Bayer, check out PAN's "Clothianidin Conditional Registration Timeline."

In a radio interview, Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald called pesticides the "elephant in the room that's not being talked about": "Pesticides are the portion of this problem that can be most immediately addressed without any new money, any new people, any new laws.... If we don't solve this pesticide problem, these other things aren't going to matter. We're going to have some of the best-looking cadavers that we've had in years."

In early October, the New York Times ran a piece titled "Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery" that reported that "A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana in the online science journal PLoS One."

The Pesticide Action Network recently pointed out that, "At issue in the NYT piece is the conspicuous absence of pesticides as a causal factor in the purported 'solving' of CCD (a 'fungus tag-teaming with a virus'). As Katherine Eban of CNN Money points out, 'What the Times article did not explore - nor did the study disclose - was the relationship between the study's lead author, Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer Crop Science. In recent years Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination.'"

According to the PAN, Theobald "lamented the [New York Times'] article's over-reach, noting that the newly discovered virus is simply co-present with CCD and that correlation does not mean causation. Many scientists and beekeepers believe that sub-lethal pesticide exposure weakens bees immune and nervous systems, rendering them susceptible to the increase in disease and apparent decrease in navigational abilities that are the hallmark symptoms of CCD."

Philpott pointed out that on April 22, "the EPA finally ended clothianidin's long period of 'conditional' purgatory -- by granting it full registration. The agency gifted the bee-killing pesticide with its new status quietly; to my knowledge, the only public acknowledgment of it came through the efforts of Theobald, who is extremely worried about the fate of his own bee-keeping business in Colorado's corn country."

The leaked memo dated November 2, stated: "Clothianidin's major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). ...? Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct ... risk assessments on non-target insects, information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoids insecticides (e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects."

According to Philpott, "The real kicker is that the researchers essentially invalidated the Bayer-funded study -- i.e., the study on which the EPA based clothianidin's registration as an fully registered chemical. Referring to the pesticide, the authors write: 'A previous field study [i.e., the Bayer study] investigated the effects of clothianidin on whole hive parameters and was classified as acceptable. However, after another review of this field study in light of additional information, deficiencies were identified that render the study supplemental. It does not satisfy the guideline 850.3040, and another field study is needed to evaluate the effects of clothianidin on bees through contaminated pollen and nectar. Exposure through contaminated pollen and nectar and potential toxic effects therefore remain an uncertainty for pollinators.'"

Jay Feldman of Beyond Pesticides told Philpott that he found "the EPA response either misinformed or misleading. The paper trail on this is clear. We're talking about a bad study required by EPA [that is central] to the registration of this chemical."

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