A May 2014 study from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that two widely used neonicotinoids appear to significantly harm honeybee colonies. In April 2015, Science magazine published two additional studies whose findings corroborated and extended those of the Harvard study. Neonicotinoids are used as seed treatments in more than 140 crops. They are systemic pesticides, meaning they are absorbed through roots and leaves and distributed throughout an entire plant, including its pollen and nectar. For pollinators, low-level exposure can lead to sublethal effects such as altered learning, impaired foraging, and immune suppression; at higher levels, exposure can be deadly.
In response to scientific evidence like this, three of the leading corporations that produce neonicotinoid pesticides—Bayer, Syngenta, and Monsanto—have engaged in massive public relations campaigns, costing more than $100 million and employing tactics similar to those that Big Tobacco used for decades to deny public health findings.
As Michele Simon reported in a study for Friends of the Earth, these tactics include creating distractions by blaming anything but the pesticides for documented collapses in honeybee populations—including, for example, blaming farmers for misuse of the pesticides. These companies also attack scientists and journalists to discredit their findings. At the same time, Bayer, Syngenta, and Monsanto attempt to buy credibility by cultivating alliances and strategic partnerships with farmers, beekeepers, and agricultural organizations in hopes of representing themselves as “friends of the bees.” Thus, for example, Monsanto announced the formation of a Honey Bee Advisory Council, a strategic alliance of Monsanto executives and others. The British Bee-Keepers Association received significant funding from Bayer, Syngenta, and other pesticide companies. In return, they endorsed the insecticides as “bee-friendly.”
As Rebekah Wilce reported for PR Watch, “Rather than taking action on a problem that threatens food production worldwide, pesticide companies have taken a leaf from the tobacco industry playbook, ramping up efforts to sow doubt about the extent of the problem and their own potential role in the crisis.” By contrast, she noted, the European Union has implemented a two-year ban on use of the three most common neonicotinoids, imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam.
In June 2014, Brandon Keim, writing for Wired, reported on another Friends of the Earth study showing that big-box garden centers in North America—including Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart—sell ostensibly bee-friendly plants that actually contain high levels of neonicotinoids. The study found that thirty-six out of seventy-one (51 percent) garden plant samples purchased at top garden retailers in eighteen cities across the US and Canada contained neonicotinoid pesticides. Forty percent of the positive samples contained two or more types of neonicotinoids. “Unfortunately,” the report’s authors wrote, “home gardeners have no idea they may actually be poisoning pollinators through their efforts to plant bee-friendly gardens.”
Although major news outlets—including, for example, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio—covered Nature’s two reports about neonicotinoids’ negative effects on bees, they did not report the public relations campaigns by Bayer, Syngenta, and Monsanto, which aimed to undermine the scientific studies’ findings and deflect blame from pesticides. Similarly, the establishment press covered Lowes’ announcement that it would no longer sell products containing neonicotinoids, but did not report that “bee-friendly” plants sold by home garden centers across the US may actually be tricking well-intentioned customers into exposing pollinators to neonicotinoids in their own home gardens.
Michele Simon, “Follow the Honey: 7 Ways Pesticide Companies Are Spinning the Bee Crisis to Protect Profits,” Friends of the Earth, April 28, 2014, http://www.foe.org/news/blog/2014-04-follow-the-honey-7-ways-pesticide-companies-are-spinning-bee-crisis.
Rebekah Wilce, “Pesticide Firms Use Tobacco Playbook to Spin Bee Crisis,” PR Watch, Center for Media and Democracy, May 12, 2014, http://www.prwatch.org/news/2014/05/12468/pesticide-industry-uses-big-tobacco-playbook-spin-bee-crisis#sthash.gy3guWE9.dpuf.
Timothy Brown et al., “Gardeners Beware 2014: Bee-Toxic Pesticides Found in ‘Bee-Friendly’ Plants Sold at Garden Centers across the U.S. and Canada,” Friends of the Earth, June 2014,http://www.foe.org/projects/food-and-technology/beeaction.
Brandon Keim, “How Your Bee-Friendly Garden May Actually Be Killing Bees,” Wired, June 25, 2014, http://www.wired.com/2014/06/garden-center-neonicotinoids.
Student Researcher: Stephanie Armendariz (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)