by: Tom Philpott
It's not just the State and Defense departments that are reeling this month from leaked documents. The Environmental Protection Agency now has some explaining to do, too. In place of dodgy dealings with foreign leaders, this case involves the German agrichemical giant Bayer; a pesticide with an unpronounceable name, clothianidin; and an insect species crucial to food production (as well as a food producer itself), the honeybee. And in lieu of a memo leaked to a globetrotting Australian, this one features a document delivered to a long-time Colorado beekeeper.
All of that, plus my favorite crop to fixate on: industrial corn, which blankets 88 million acres of farmland nationwide and produces a bounty of protein-rich pollen on which honeybees love to feast.
An internal EPA memo released Wednesday 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.
The colony-collapse phenomenon is complex and still not completely understood. While there appears to be no single cause for the annual die-offs, mounting evidence points to pesticides, and specifically neonicotinoids (derived from nicotine), as a key factor. And neonicotinoids are a relatively new factor in ecosystems frequented by honeybees -- introduced in the late 1990s, these systemic insecticides have gained a steadily rising share of the seed-treatment market. It does not seem unfair to observe that the health of the honeybee population has steadily declined over the same period.
According to PANNA, other crops commonly treated with clothianidin include canola, soy, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat -- all among the most widely planted U.S. crops. Bayer is now petitioning the EPA to register it for use with cotton and mustard seed.
The document [PDF], leaked to Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald, reveals that EPA scientists have declared 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.
On Thursday, I asked an EPA press spokesperson via email if the scientists' opinion would inspire the agency to remove clothianidin from the market. The 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.
Before we dig deeper into the leaked memo, it's important to understand the sorry story of how an insecticide known to harm honeybee populations came to blanket a huge swath of U.S. farmland in the first place. It's nearly impossible not to read it as a tale of a key public watchdog instead heeling to the industry it's supposed to regulate.
In the EPA's dealings with Bayer on this particular insecticide, 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.
According to a time line provided by PANNA, the sordid story begins when Bayer first applied for registration of clothianidin in 2003. (All of the documents to which I link below were provided to me by PANNA.) By 2003, U.S. beekeepers were reporting difficulties in keeping hives healthy through the winter, but not yet on the scale of colony collapse disorder. In February of this year, the EPA's Environmental Fate and Effects Division (EFED) withheld registration of clothianidin, declaring that it wanted more evidence that it wouldn't harm bee populations.
In a memo [PDF], an EFAD scientist explained the decision:
The possibility of toxic exposure to nontarget pollinators [e.g., honeybees] through the translocation of clothianidin residues that result from seed treatment (corn and canola) has prompted EFED to require field testing that can evaluate the possible chronic exposure to honeybee larvae and the queen. In order to fully evaluate the possibility of this toxic effect, a complete worker bee life cycle study (about 63 days) must be conducted, as well as an evaluation of exposure to the queen.
So, no selling clothianidin until a close, expert examination of how pollen infused with it would affect worker bees and Her Majesty the queen.
Again, that was in February of 2003. But in April of that year, just two months later, the agency backtracked. "After further consideration," the agency wrote in another memo, the EPA has decided to grant clothianidin "conditional registration" -- meaning that Bayer was free to sell it, and seed processors were free to apply it to their products. (Don't get me started on the EPA's habit of granting dodgy chemicals "conditional registration," before allowing their unregulated use for years and even decades. That's another story.)
The EPA's one condition reflected the concerns of its scientists about how it would affect honeybees: that Bayer complete the "chronic life cycle study" the agency had already requested by December of 2004. The scientists minced no words in reiterating their concerns. They called clothianidin's effects "persistent" and "toxic to honeybees" and noted the the "potential for expression in pollen and nectar of flowering crops."
These concerns aside and "conditional registration" in hand, Bayer introduced clothianidin to the U.S. market in spring 2003. Farmers throughout the corn belt planted seeds treated with clothianidin, and billions -- if not trillions -- of plants began producing pollen rich with the bee-killing stuff.
In March of 2004, Bayer requested an extension on its December deadline for delivering the life-cycle study. In a March 11 memo [PDF], the EPA agreed, giving the chemical giant until May 2005 to complete the research. Clothianidin continued flowing from Bayer's factories and from corn plants into pollen.
But the EPA also relayed a crucial decision in this memo: It granted Bayer the permission it had sought to conduct its study on canola in Canada, instead of on corn in the United States. The EPA justified the decision as follows:
[Canola] is attractive to bee [sic] and will provide bee exposure from both pollen and nectar. An alternative crop, such as corn, which is less attractive to bees as a forage crop, would provide exposure from pollen, only.
Bee experts cite three problems with this decision:
1. Corn produces much more pollen than does canola;
2. its pollen is more attractive to honey bees; and
3. canola is a minor crop in the United States, while corn is the single most widely planted crop.
What happened next was ... not much. Bayer let the deadline for completing the study lapse; and the EPA let Bayer keep selling clothianidin, which continued to be deposited into tens of millions of acres of farmland.
Not until August of 2007, more than a year after its deadline, did Bayer deliver its study. In a November 2007 memo [PDF], EPA scientists declared the study "scientifically sound," adding that it, "satisfies the guideline requirements for a field toxicity test with honeybees."
Beeing and nothingness
So what were the details of that study, on which the health of our little pollinator friends depended?
Well, the EPA initially refused to release it publicly, prompting a Freedom of Information Act by the Natural Resources Defense Council. When the EPA still refused to release it, NRDC filed suit in response. Eventually, the study was released. Here it is [PDF].
Prepared for Bayer by researchers at Canada's University of Guelph, the study is a bit of a joke. The researchers created several 2.47-acre fields planted with clothianidin-treated seeds and matching untreated control fields, and placed hives at the center of each. Bees were allowed to roam freely. The problem is that bees forage in a range of 1.24 to 6.2 miles -- meaning that the test bees most likely dined outside of the test fields. Worse, the test and control fields were planted as closely as 968 feet apart, meaning test and control bees had access to each other's fields.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found "no differences in bee mortality, worker longevity, or brood development occurred between control and treatment groups throughout the study."
Tom Theobald, the Colorado beekeeper who obtained the leaked memo, assessed the study harshly on the phone to me Thursday. "Imagine you're a rancher trying to figure out if a noxious weed is harming your cows," he said. "If you plant the weed on two acres and let your cows roam free over 50 acres of lush Montana grass, you're not going to learn much about that weed."
James Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State, concurred. Frazier has been studying colony-collapse disorder since 2006. "When I looked at the study," he told me in a phone interview, "I immediately thought it was invalid."
Meanwhile, Bayer continued selling clothianidin under its conditional registration. Then, on April 22 of this year, 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. Theobald forwarded me a Nov. 29 email exchange with Meredith Laws, the acting chief of the EPA's herbicide division in the Office of Pesticide Programs, to whom he'd written to enquire about clothianidin's registration status. Laws' reply is worth quoting in its entirety:
Clothianidin was granted an unconditional registration for use as a seed treatment for corn and canola on April 22, 2010. EPA issued a new registration notice, [but] there is no document that acknowledges the change from conditional to unconditional. This was a risk management decision based on the fulfillment of data requirements and reviews accepting or acknowledging the submittal of the data.
So, the EPA gave Bayer and its dubious pesticide a full pass without even bothering to let the public know.
Just bee very careful, please
Now we get to the leaked memo [PDF]. It is dated Nov. 2 -- three weeks before Laws' reply to Theobald. It relates to Bayer's efforts to expand clothianidin's approved use into cotton and mustard. Authored by two scientists in the EPA's Environmental Fate and Effects Division -- ecologist Joseph DeCant and chemist Michael Barrett -- the memo expresses grave concern about clothianidin's effect on honeybees:
Clothianidin's major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees).
Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. 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.
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. [Emphasis mine.]
So, here we have EPA researchers explicitly invalidating the study on which clothianidin gained registration for corn. But as I wrote above, despite this information's being made public, the EPA has signaled that it has no plans to change the chemical's status.
In the 2011 growing season, tens of millions of acres of farmland will bloom with clothianidin-laced pollen -- honeybees, and sound science, be damned.
Now, in my correspondence with the EPA, the agency has denied that the downgrading of the Bayer study from "acceptable" to "supplemental" meant that the agency should be compelled to clothianidin's approval. In a Thursday email to me, the agency delivered a limp defense of the Bayer study, contradicting its own scientists and addressing none of the critiques of it:
EPA's evaluation of the study determined that it contains information useful to the agency's risk assessment. The study revealed the majority of hives monitored, including those exposed to clothianidin during the previous season, survived the over-wintering period.
And it downplayed the study's importance to Bayer's application to register clothianidin: The study in question is "not a 'core' study for EPA as claimed," the agency insisted. "It is not a study routinely required to support the registration of a pesticide."
I ran that response by Jay Feldman of Beyond Pesticides, the group that collaborated with PANNA in publicizing the leaked document. "I find the EPA response either misinformed or misleading," he told me. "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."
Feldman's assessment appears to bear out. He pointed me back to the above-linked Nov. 27 document in which EPA originally accepted the Bayer study. There, on page 5, we find this statement:
Specifically, the test was conducted in response to a request by the Canadian PMRA [Pesticides and Pest Management Agency] and the U.S. EPA; as a condition for Poncho@ [clothianidin] registration in these countries, Bayer CropScience was asked to investigate the long-term toxicity of clothianidin-treated canola to foraging honey bees.
So evidently, the discredited Bayer study does lie at the heart of clothianidin's acceptance. (I have requested an interview with an EPA official who can talk knowledgeably and on the record about these matters; the anonymous-by-request spokesperson is, at the time of publication, still looking for the "right person," I was informed via email.)
A stinging assessment
At the very least, we have ample evidence that the EPA has been ignoring the warnings of its own staff scientists and green-lighting the mass deployment of a chemical widely understood to harm pollinators -- at a time when honeybees are in grave shape.
But why? Tom Theobald, the Colorado beekeeper who broke this story, ventured an answer. "It's corporatism, the flip side of fascism," he said. "I'm not against corporations, I think they have a good model. But they're like children -- we have to rein them in or they get out of hand. The EPA's supposed to do that."
When regime change came to Washington in 2008, many of us hoped that an EPA under Barack Obama would be a better parent. EPA Director Lisa Jackson inherited quite a mess from her predecessor, and she faces the Herculean challenge of regulating greenhouse gases against fierce Republican and industry opposition.
But as concern mounts -- from her own staff and elsewhere -- that clothianidin is harming honeybees, there's no excuse for Jackson's agency to keep coddling Bayer. Frazier, the Penn State entomologist, put it to me like this: "If the Bayer study is the core study the EPA used to register clothianidin, then there's no basis for registering it." He urged the EPA to withdraw registration to avoid unnecessary risk to a critical player in our ecosystem -- as have the governments of Germany, France, Italy, and Slovenia.
A really long article, but a really important read. I don't think most people realize how important the decline in bee population is.