Did the USDA Suppress Science on the Effects of Pesticides?

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Did the USDA Suppress Science on the Effects of Pesticides?Established in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for the development and execution of the nation’s official policies on farming, agriculture, forestry, and food. It was, as Lincoln referred to it, “the people’s department.” But new allegations from a respected USDA scientist says the agency is more focused on protecting major corporate interests–namely chemical and seed companies–than “the people” or the environment from the effects of pesticides.

Jonathan Lund­gren is an entomologist who spent 11 years in service to the USDA, and now, he claims his agency supervisors worked to slow his research and thwart his publications on the negative effects of pesticides, particularly for pollinators.

In a complaint delivered to the federal Merit Systems Protection Board filed, Lundgren claims that he was suspended by the USDA over research that pointed directly to harmful effects of pesticides on pollinators including bees and butterflies. These pollinators play crucial roles in the U.S. food supply, providing billions of dollars worth of work for free. Estimates credit one in every three bites of food to pollinators, but their populations have been steadily declining in recent years. The European Union recently enacted a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides for their suspected role in honeybee deaths, but the U.S. has not, stating there’s not yet enough research to make a direct link between neonics and pollinator decline, despite a growing number of studies on the issue.

According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which filed the complaint on Lundgren’s behalf, his work showed the “adverse effects of certain widely used pesticides, findings which have drawn national attention as well as the ire of the agricultural industry.”

USDA says Lundgren was suspended not over his findings (or the backlash that would have for manufacturers of neonicotinoids), but for infractions that include submitting his research to a scientific journal without approval as well as violating the agency’s travel policies.

“Lundgren has published work suggesting that soybean seeds pretreated with neonicotinoid pesticide produce no yield benefit to farmers, who pay extra for the seeds,” reports the Washington Post. “He wrote a paper on the potential hazards of ‘gene silencing’ pesticides, which he said require further study to determine whether they could harm other organisms.”

Lundgren also peer-reviewed a report published by the Center for Food Safety called “Heavy Costs,” which “was critical of neonicotinoid pesticides for providing little to no benefit to farmers and adversely affecting bees,” says the Post.

Lundgren also contributed to a paper that points to federal ethanol mandates and GMOs as contributing to the increase in “environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, stronger pest resistance and inflated corn prices,” the Post explains.

Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, told the Post that Lundgren’s whistleblower complaint builds on the scientific freedom discussion. Ruch says the USDA is basically telling its scientists: “ ‘You can do whatever science you want, as long as it has no real-world applications.’ The rules allow for scientists to be silenced based on the content of their science.”

While the USDA may be slow to acknowledge the risks of widely used agrochemicals, the World Health Organization recently labeled glyphosate, the popular herbicide companion to Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, as probably carcinogenic–a move that’s bound to have repercussions not only for Monsanto’s Roundup brand of glyphosate, but the herbicide and pesticide industries at large.

A federal court recently blocked the EPA’s approval of a pesticide believed to harm honey bees; and just this week, new research published in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B points to neonicotinoids as the key culprit in the decline of honeybee populations.

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Pesticides image via Shutterstock

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