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Buzz Kill: How the Pesticide Industry Blocks Bee Protections Nationwide

Animals
Buzz Kill: How the Pesticide Industry Blocks Bee Protections Nationwide

There's a nationwide buzz in the air about saving bees and other pollinators, but the pesticide industry has been working hard to silence this growing call for reform.

Bees, vitally important to food production, are dying at unsustainable rates — an unprecedented average 30 to 40 percent of all honeybee colonies each year. In the face of this growing crisis, a new investigation by Friends of the Earth, Buzz Kill: How the Pesticide Industry is Clipping the Wings of Bee Protection Efforts Across the U.S. has found that the pesticide industry is stifling urgently needed reforms that would help these essential pollinators survive and rebuild their numbers.

Photo credit: Cheri Johnson

Bees and other pollinators are essential to our food system, to our food security and to ecological sustainability. They pollinate and help produce one in every three bites of our food, such as some of our most nutritious foods including apples, almonds and blueberries.

Despite growing public concern and scientific evidence about mass bee die-offs and pollinator declines, the pesticide industry has weakened and delayed federal and state measures to protect these key players in food security and ecological health. Due in part to vigorous pesticide industry lobbying, pollinator protection efforts across the U.S. remain a patchwork of largely voluntary, unenforceable measures that fail to limit or restrict pesticide use.

A growing body of scientific research shows that neonicotinoids — the world's fastest-growing and most widely-used class of insecticides — play a significant role in pollinator deaths and population declines. These insecticides (often applied as seed coatings) are systemic and persistent — absorbed throughout the stems, leaves and flowers of a growing plant, with toxins that can linger for years in the environment. The pesticide, used on the majority of corn and a large percentage of soy, wheat and canola seeds along with 140 varieties of crops, can kill bees outright by attacking the nervous system, while low levels of exposure have been shown to disrupt foraging abilities, navigation and other life-preserving activities. Neonicotinoids also suppress bees' immune systems, making them more vulnerable to diseases and pests such as the Varroa mite.

Despite strong and growing evidence that neonics harm bees, vigorous pesticide ­­­­­industry lobbying efforts have stymied legislative and regulatory momentum to save pollinators. Even as consumers, businesses, beekeepers, environmental groups and some government officials urge concrete action to restore honeybees and their habitats, pesticide firms and industry groups have led a sophisticated multilayered campaign to divert attention away from pesticides. Led by Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont, the pesticide industry has lobbied to slow and weaken federal and state pollinator protection laws.

With combined revenues of more than $150 billion a year, pesticide corporations — including Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont — have tremendous economic and political clout. In 2015, the industry spent more than $30 million lobbying (on measures including but beyond pollinator protection) to protect their sales and profits. Dow Chemical alone spent $10.8 million on lobbying in 2015, while Bayer spent $7.6 million and DuPont $6.1 million.

Friends of the Earth urging Lowe's to stop selling bee-killing pesticides during a national week of action in October 2014.

Bayer, Syngenta, CropLife America and other leading pesticide firms and industry groups have lobbied to prevent any pollinator protection action related to pesticide use. Those efforts, along with the industry's prolific use of the revolving door between government agencies and corporations, have paid off. Across the U.S., state pollinator protection plans currently provide more protections for pesticides and pesticide users than for bee keepers and bee colonies and lack metrics to measure effectiveness, improvement or failure.

On the federal level, pesticide industry lobbying has helped weaken pollinator protection and, so far, prevent any limits to neonicotinoids. President Obama's Pollinator Protection Plan emphasizes state-led action and does not include any enforceable limits or restrictions on pesticide use to protect pollinators. Meanwhile, congressional efforts to protect pollinators and limit neonicotinoid use, led by Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), have been repeatedly stymied and have yet to receive hearings or a vote.

In a two-track approach, pesticide firms and industry groups, led by Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Monsanto and CropLife America, have successfully opposed legislation addressing (or even studying) pesticides, while supporting voluntary efforts focused on other factors, such as Varroa mites and habitat restoration.

In Massachusetts, for instance, pesticide ­­­interests spent $190,000 to halt pesticide restrictions and to divert attention to other factors contributing to bee decline. In many states, the Farm Bureau has played a key supporting role in distracting attention from pesticides and promoting unenforceable voluntary approaches that do not limit pesticide use.

Friends of the Earth research shows that the pesticide industry has made extensive use of the political revolving door, cycling through officials who have held prominent positions in pesticide corporations and in the federal agencies responsible for regulating them. As our report shows, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has more than 180 revolving door cases, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has more than 150 cases of employees shuffling between regulatory agencies and companies including Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto.

In its efforts to slow and weaken reform, the pesticide industry has also used “public-private" partnerships and alliances to distract attention away from pesticides and to promote other factors contributing to bee decline. Groups such as the Pollinator Partnership and Oregonians for Food & Shelter claim to be grassroots environmental and farmer alliances, yet they include pesticide corporations and insistently lobby against any restrictions to pesticide use.

Making matters worse, top pesticide corporations are on the verge of increasing their economic and political clout through pending megamergers. If Monsanto and Bayer, Dow and DuPont, and Syngenta and ChemChina each form partnerships, the three resulting corporations will control more than 65 percent of global pesticide sales and almost 61 percent of commercial seed sales. This could severely harm options and sustainability for farmers, consumers and our environment.

Photo credit: Jeff Anderson, beekeeper and owner of Minnesota California Honey Farms.

Despite the significant challenges, there is hope for pollinators. Across the U.S., awareness and action on behalf of bees is on the rise: A large percentage of the retail sector has removed neonicotinoids from its plants. Maryland and Connecticut have passed bills to eliminate consumer use of these pesticides; and cities, universities and people in their own backyards are creating safe havens for bees by reining in the use of neonicotinoids and other pesticides.

Now, legislators and regulators must step up and act immediately to limit the proven harm associated with these bee-toxic pesticides, while addressing other factors such as habitat. This means working with the growing nationwide movement of consumers, sustainable farmers, beekeepers, local governments, businesses and environmental advocates to resist the pesticide lobby and insist on limiting neonicotinoids.

A national Keep the Hives Alive Tour kicked off June 13-23, with stops in South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, to mark National Pollinator Week. At the end of the tour, beekeepers, farmers, farmworkers, scientists and advocates will deliver a truck load of 2.64 million dead bees to Washington, DC to urge the EPA, USDA and Congress to take action on toxic pesticides and support sustainable agriculture.

Buzz Kill builds on Friends of the Earth's 2014 Follow the Honey report,which revealed how chemical companies Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto employ deceptive tobacco-style public relations tactics to manufacture doubt about scientific findings on pollinator die-offs; convince politicians to delay action on neonicotinoid pesticides (a leading contributor to bee declines); and protect chemical industry sales and profits at the expense of bees and our food system.

Learn more and take action here.

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The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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