Pesticide politics

by Debra Daniels Zeller

This article was originally published in February 2016

Is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) silencing researchers who study politically sensitive topics such as neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides? Reuters reports at least 10 USDA scientists have been investigated or faced other consequences arising from research that called into question the safety of certain agricultural chemicals.

Jonathan Lundgren is a senior researcher at the Agriculture Research Service (ARS), a division of USDA, in Brookings, South Dakota. Lundgren says after he submitted an article about the sub-lethal effects of clothianidin, a type of neonic, on Monarch butterflies to a peer-reviewed journal in March 2014, the ARS targeted him.

An 11-year veteran researcher, Lundgren has written nearly 100 articles for peer-reviewed journals. In 2011 he was awarded “Outstanding Early Career Research Scientist” and got to meet President Obama. USDA called Lundgren’s research “innovative,” until he uncovered negative environmental effects of biotech crops and neonics.

Lundgren’s 2014 Monarch study reported caterpillars feeding on milkweed near genetically engineered corn were exposed to clothianidin. Manufactured by Bayer and applied to the seed by an adhesive from Monsanto, clothianidin provides plants their own insecticides as they grow. Exposed caterpillars have smaller heads, shorter bodies and weigh less than non-exposed counterparts.

“Research should prompt a larger, more comprehensive risk assessment of how pesticides might be entering untreated plants in the landscape to affect species,” says Lundgren. “Habitat development plans without integrated pest management plans could have adverse effects on beneficial species.”

Targeting science

Lundgren’s complaint listed activities that he says generated the targeting by USDA:

  • An interview by NPR Harvest Public Media about an article Lundgren wrote about RNAi technology, gene-splicing plants with pesticides for the journal Bioscience.
  • His role as an external reviewer for a report called “Heavy Costs: Weighing the Value of Neonicotinoids in Agriculture,” by the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization. The report questioned the safety of neonics.
  • A paper Lundgren wrote with South Dakota State economist, Scott Fausti, called, “The Effect of Biotechnology and Biofuels on U.S. Corn Belting Systems.” At the end of the article, Fausti wrote: “the ARS has required Dr. Lundgren to remove his name as joint first author from this article. I believe this action raises a serious question concerning policy neutrality toward scientific inquiry.”
  • Travel expenses to speak on a panel at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., on “insect management in production systems” and at the Sunshine Farmers’ Conference presented by the No-Till Alliance in Pennsylvania to speak on biodiversity to combat pests. After these speaking engagements, Lundgren was told he didn’t have permission and was told to pay all travel expenses to conference organizers at his expense. He also was docked his pay for the week.

After the NPR interview, officials told Lundgren not to speak to the press because his research was “sensitive.”

The complaint also says ARS officials had disrupted Lundgren’s lab, coerced and intimidated his lab assistants, and unexpectedly dismissed five of his eight employees. Even for presentations, officials required multiple levels of approval of Lundgren’s slides before submission and questioned his ability to do research.

USDA’s response

Claiming to be a culture of integrity, USDA officials responded to Lundgren’s complaint in August 2015 by suspending the scientist for 14 days without pay over the travel paperwork glitch, failure to follow supervisory instructions, misuse of a government vehicle (driving to the airport for the conference he assumed was approved and paid for), and for going AWOL while attending the conference.

Lundgren found himself in a Kafkaesque world when his supervisor told him he was accused of misconduct but couldn’t tell Lundgren any details about the allegations against him. The unspecific nature of the investigation caused Lundgren and his entire research team unnecessary mental and physical distress.

Public support

The advocacy group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), filed a whistleblower’s complaint in October 2015, making Lundgren’s complaint against USDA public. Whistleblowers risk careers to bring accountability and honesty back in government.

“The ability of scientific experts to investigate questions and publicly discuss scientific results when these topics are politically invonvenient is crucial to advance our society,” Lundgren says. Federal scientists should be able to ask tough questions.

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