EPA and Bayer's Recklessness

I posted on this exact story two years ago and again morerecently.  Bayer’s clothianidin is thoroughlyimplicated as the causation of colony collapse disorder (CCD) and I said sothen.

Smart beekeepers are now avoiding corn field exposure andas this makes clear should also be as careful around canola.  The fact is that it has become necessary todo a local reconnaissance to ensure exposure is understood.

Recent work has shown that coated seeds do impact thebees and low level accumulation will do the trick.  Much lower actually than had been expected.

We are looking at the early shots of what will become amassive class action suit and the revelation of internal science at the EPAsaying exactly what others have been saying is a smoking gun.  This revelation will almost certainly makethe EPA a party to the lawsuit.

Perhaps it is time the EPA was brought to an accountingand its political stench expunged.

It is noteworthy that it has already been banned by Franc, Germanyand Italy.

More importantly, the information is out there and I ampretty sure just about every bee keeper is wise to all this and is takingcorrective measures.  It is not too hardto do a drive about and to discuss with farmers their usage before you plunk inyour hives.

Leaked documentshows EPA allowed bee-toxic pesticide despite own scientists’ red flags

10 DEC 2010 8:36 AM

Follow thehoney: Smokingbees makes them less mad when you move them, but leaked EPA documents mighthave the opposite effect.Photo: Kris Fricke It's not just the State and Defense departments that are reeling thismonth from leaked documents. The Environmental Protection Agency now has someexplaining to do, too. In place of dodgy dealings with foreign leaders, thiscase involves the German agrichemical giant Bayer; a pesticide with anunpronounceable name, clothianidin; and an insect species crucial to foodproduction (as well as a food producer itself), the honeybee. And in lieu of amemo leaked to a globetrotting Australian, this one features a documentdelivered to a long-time Coloradobeekeeper. 

All of that, plus my favorite crop to fixate on: industrial corn, whichblankets 88 million acres of farmland nationwide and produces a bounty ofprotein-rich pollen on which honeybees love to feast. 

It's The Agency Who Kicked theBeehive, as written by Jonathan Franzen!

Hive talking

An internal EPA memo released Wednesday confirms that the very agency chargedwith protecting the environment is ignoring the warnings of its own scientistsabout clothianidin, a pesticide from which Bayer racked up €183 million (about $262million) 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 theneonicotinoid family of pesticides, clothianidin gets "taken up by aplant'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 effectmakes it highly toxic to a crop's pests -- and also harmful to pollen-hoardinghoneybees, 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, andspecifically neonicotinoids (derived from nicotine), as a key factor. Andneonicotinoids are a relatively new factor in ecosystems frequented byhoneybees -- introduced in the late 1990s, these systemic insecticides havegained a steadily rising share of the seed-treatment market. It does notseem unfair to observe that the health of the honeybee population has steadilydeclined over the same period. 

According to PANNA, other crops commonly treated with clothianidin includecanola, soy, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat -- all among the most widelyplanted U.S.crops. Bayer is now petitioning the EPA to register it for use with cotton andmustard seed. 

The document [PDF], leaked to Colorado beekeeper TomTheobald, reveals that EPA scientists have declared essentially rejected thefindings of a study conducted on behalf of Bayer that the agency had used tojustify the registration of clothianidin. And they reiterated concerns thatwidespread 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. Thespokesperson, who asked not to be named but who communicated on the record onbehalf of the agency, replied that clothianidin would retain its registrationand be available for use in the spring.

Wimpy watchdogging

Before we dig deeper into the leaked memo, it's important to understand thesorry story of how an insecticide known to harm honeybee populations came toblanket a huge swath of U.S.farmland in the first place. It's nearly impossible not to read it as a tale ofa key public watchdog instead heeling to the industry it's supposed toregulate. 

In the EPA's dealings with Bayer on this particular insecticide, the agencycharged with protecting the environment has consistently made industry-friendlydecisions that contradict the conclusions of its own scientists -- and threatento do monumental harm to our food system by wiping out its key pollinators. 

According to a time line provided by PANNA, the sordidstory 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.) By2003, U.S.beekeepers were reporting difficulties in keeping hives healthy through thewinter, but not yet on the scale of colony collapse disorder. In February ofthis year, the EPA's Environmental Fate and Effects Division (EFED) withheldregistration of clothianidin, declaring that it wanted more evidence that itwouldn't harm bee populations. 

In a memo [PDF], an EFAD scientist explainedthe decision:

The possibility of toxic exposure to nontarget pollinators [e.g.,honeybees] through the translocation of clothianidin residues that result fromseed treatment (corn and canola) has prompted EFED to require field testingthat can evaluate the possible chronic exposure to honeybee larvae and thequeen. In order to fully evaluate the possibility of this toxic effect, acomplete worker bee life cycle study (about 63 days) must be conducted, as wellas an evaluation of exposure to the queen.

So, no selling clothianidin until a close, expert examination of howpollen 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 monthslater, the agency backtracked. "After further consideration," theagency wrote in another memo, the EPA has decided to grantclothianidin "conditional registration" -- meaning that Bayer wasfree 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 foryears and even decades. That's another story.)

The EPA's one condition reflected the concerns of its scientists about how itwould affect honeybees: that Bayer complete the "chronic life cyclestudy" the agency had already requested by December of 2004. Thescientists minced no words in reiterating their concerns. They calledclothianidin's effects "persistent" and "toxic tohoneybees" and noted the the "potential for expression in pollen andnectar of flowering crops."

These concerns aside and "conditional registration" in hand, Bayerintroduced clothianidin to the U.S.market in spring 2003. Farmers throughout the corn belt planted seeds treatedwith clothianidin, and billions -- if not trillions -- of plants beganproducing pollen rich with the bee-killing stuff.

In March of 2004, Bayer requested an extension on its December deadlinefor delivering the life-cycle study. In a March 11 memo [PDF],the EPA agreed, giving the chemical giant until May 2005 to complete theresearch. Clothianidin continued flowing from Bayer's factories and from cornplants into pollen.

But the EPA also relayed a crucial decision in this memo: It granted Bayer thepermission 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 fromboth pollen and nectar. An alternative crop, such as corn, which is less attractiveto bees as a forage crop, would provide exposure from pollen, only.

Bee experts cite three problems with thisdecision:
1.              Cornproduces much more pollen than does canola;
2.              itspollen is more attractive to honey bees; and
3.              canolais a minor crop in the United States, while corn is the single most widelyplanted crop.

What happened next was ... not much. Bayer let the deadline forcompleting 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 Bayerdeliver its study. In a November 2007 memo [PDF],EPA scientists declared the study "scientifically sound," adding thatit, "satisfies the guideline requirements for a field toxicity test withhoneybees."

Beeing and nothingness

So what were the details of that study, on which the health of our littlepollinator friends depended?

Well, the EPA initially refused to release it publicly, prompting a Freedom ofInformation Act by the Natural Resources Defense Council. When the EPA stillrefused to release it, NRDC filedsuit in response. Eventually, the study was released. Here itis [PDF].

Prepared for Bayer by researchers at Canada'sUniversity of Guelph, the study is a bit of a joke.The researchers created several 2.47-acre fields planted withclothianidin-treated seeds and matching untreated control fields, and placedhives at the center of each. Bees were allowed to roam freely. The problem isthat bees forage in a range of 1.24 to 6.2 miles -- meaning that the test beesmost likely dined outside of the test fields. Worse, the test and controlfields were planted as closely as 968 feet apart, meaning test and control beeshad access to each other's fields. 

Not surprisingly, the researchers found "no differences in bee mortality, workerlongevity, or brood development occurred between control and treatment groupsthroughout the study."

Tom Theobald, the Colorado beekeeper who obtained the leaked memo, assessed thestudy harshly on the phone to me Thursday. "Imagine you're a ranchertrying 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 50acres of lush Montanagrass, 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 Ilooked at the study," he told me in a phone interview, "I immediatelythought it was invalid." 

Meanwhile, Bayer continued selling clothianidin under its conditionalregistration. Then, on April 22 of this year, the EPA finally endedclothianidin's long period of "conditional" purgatory -- by grantingit full registration. 

The agency gifted the bee-killing pesticide with its new status quietly; to myknowledge, the only public acknowledgment of it came through the efforts ofTheobald, who is extremely worried about the fate of his own bee-keepingbusiness in Colorado'scorn country. Theobald forwarded me a Nov. 29 email exchange with MeredithLaws, the acting chief of the EPA's herbicide division in the Office ofPesticide Programs, to whom he'd written to enquire about clothianidin'sregistration status. Laws' reply is worth quoting in its entirety:

Clothianidin was granted an unconditional registration for use as aseed treatment for corn and canola on April 22, 2010. EPA issued a newregistration notice, [but] there is no document that acknowledges the changefrom conditional to unconditional. This was a risk management decision based onthe fulfillment of data requirements and reviews accepting or acknowledging thesubmittal of the data.

So, the EPA gave Bayer and its dubious pesticide a full pass withouteven bothering to let the public know.

Just bee very careful, please

Now we get to the leaked memo [PDF]. It is dated Nov. 2 -- threeweeks before Laws' reply to Theobald. It relates to Bayer's efforts to expandclothianidin's approved use into cotton and mustard. Authored by two scientistsin the EPA's Environmental Fate and Effects Division -- ecologist Joseph DeCantand chemist Michael Barrett -- the memo expresses grave concern aboutclothianidin'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 andsystemic. Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highlytoxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct ... risk assessments on non-target insects, information from standard testsand field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoidsinsecticides (e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long term toxicrisk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.

The real kicker is that the researchersessentially invalidated the Bayer-funded study -- i.e., the study on which theEPA 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 effectsof clothianidin on whole hive parameters and was classified as acceptable. However, after another review of this field study in light of additionalinformation, deficiencies were identified that render the study supplemental. It does not satisfy the guideline850.3040, and another field study is needed to evaluate the effects ofclothianidin on bees through contaminated pollen and nectar. Exposure through contaminated pollen and nectar and potential toxiceffects therefore remain an uncertainty for pollinators.[Emphasis mine.]

So, here we have EPA researchers explicitly invalidating the study onwhich clothianidin gained registration for corn. But as I wrote above, despite thisinformation's being made public, the EPA has signaled that it has no plans tochange the chemical's status.

In the 2011 growing season, tens of millions of acres of farmland will bloomwith clothianidin-laced pollen -- honeybees, and sound science, be damned.

Now, in my correspondence with the EPA, the agency has denied that thedowngrading of the Bayer study from "acceptable" to"supplemental" meant that the agency should be compelled toclothianidin's approval. In a Thursday email to me, the agency delivered a limpdefense of the Bayer study, contradicting its own scientists and addressingnone of the critiques of it:

EPA's evaluation of the study determined that it contains informationuseful to the agency's risk assessment. The study revealed the majority ofhives monitored, including those exposed to clothianidin during the previousseason, survived the over-wintering period.

And it downplayed the study's importance to Bayer's application toregister clothianidin: The study in question is "not a 'core' study forEPA as claimed," the agency insisted. "It is not a study routinelyrequired to support the registration of a pesticide."

I ran that response by Jay Feldman of Beyond Pesticides, the group thatcollaborated with PANNA in publicizing the leaked document. "I find theEPA response either misinformed or misleading," he told me. "Thepaper 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 theabove-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 theCanadian PMRA [Pesticides and Pest Management Agency] and the U.S. EPA; as a condition forPoncho@ [clothianidin] registration in these countries, Bayer CropScience wasasked to investigate the long-term toxicity of clothianidin-treated canola toforaging honey bees.
So evidently, the discredited Bayer study does lie at the heart ofclothianidin's acceptance. (I have requested an interview with an EPA officialwho can talk knowledgeably and on the record about these matters; theanonymous-by-request spokesperson is, at the time of publication, still lookingfor 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 thewarnings of its own staff scientists and green-lighting the mass deployment ofa chemical widely understood to harm pollinators -- at a time when honeybeesare in grave shape.

But why? Tom Theobald, the Colorado beekeeper who broke this story, ventured ananswer. "It's corporatism, the flip side of fascism," he said."I'm not against corporations, I think they have a good model. But they'relike children -- we have to rein them in or they get out of hand. The EPA'ssupposed to do that." 

When regime change came to Washingtonin 2008, many of us hoped that an EPA under Barack Obama would be a betterparent. EPA Director Lisa Jackson inheritedquite a mess from her predecessor, and she faces the Herculean challenge of regulatinggreenhouse gases against fierce Republican and industry opposition. 

But as concern mounts -- from her own staff and elsewhere -- that clothianidinis 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 theBayer study is the core study the EPA used to register clothianidin, thenthere's no basis for registering it." He urged the EPA to withdrawregistration to avoid unnecessary risk to a critical player in our ecosystem --as have the governments of Germany, France,Italy, and Slovenia.

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