Follow the Honey: 7 Ways Pesticide Companies Are Spinning the Bee Crisis | Civil Eats

Follow the Honey: 7 Ways Pesticide Companies Are Spinning the Bee Crisis

If you like to eat, then you should care about what’s happening to bees. Two-thirds of our food crops require pollination–the very foods that we rely on for healthy eating–such as apples, berries, and almonds, just to name a few. That’s why the serious decline in bee populations is getting more attention, with entire campaigns devoted to saving them.

A strong and growing body of evidence points to exposure to a class of neurotoxic pesticides called neonicotinoids—the fastest-growing and most widely used class of synthetic pesticides—as a key contrib­uting factor to bee declines. The European Union banned the three most widely used neonicotinoids, based on strong science indicating that neonics can kill bees outright and make them more vulnerable to pests, pathogens, and other stressors.

Enter the corporate spin doctors. As my new report with Friends of the Earth details, three of the leading pesticide corporations—Bayer, Syngenta, and Monsanto— are engaged in a massive public relations disinformation campaign to distract the public and policymakers from thinking that pesticides might have something to do with bee death and destruction.

Big Tobacco honed these strategies for decades, stalling action that resulted in millions of preventable deaths. As Bayer stockholders meet in Germany this week, this report shines a critical light on these destructive corporate practices. Here are the seven tactics pesticide companies are using to spin the bee crisis:

1. Pretending to Care PR Blitz

Big Tobacco perfected the art of self-serving public relations, to appear to care about the very problems your products cause and offer alleged solutions. A key element of the pesticide industry’s PR strategy is to go on the offensive by creating an elaborate appearance of being “out in front” and taking a lead role in “saving bees.” For example, last year, Bayer launched its mobile “Bee Care Tour” at the Ag Issues Forum and Commodity Classic in Orlando, Florida. The tour continues in 2014, and in June, will be on hand for National Pollinator Week in Washington, D.C.

2. Creating Distractions: Blame Anything but Pesticides

Big Tobacco was a master at inventing diversions, to ensure the public wouldn’t place blame where it belonged. The idea is to create uncertainty; as one tobacco industry executive famously put it: “Doubt is our product.” Similarly, Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto have deployed a mix of PR tactics to divert attention away from neonicotinoids as a key contributor to bee declines. They have typically promoted a “multiple factors” argument that downplays and manufactures doubt about pesticides’ role, while emphasizing varroa mites, pathogens, and bee forage as primary forces threatening bees.

Helmut Schramm, head of Bayer CropScience Germany, explained: “It’s generally known that the varroa mite is the main enemy of the bee.” To further distract attention, Bayer has even erected a giant sculpture of the varroa mite on a bee at its “Bee Care” Center in Germany.  As the New York Times notes, “Conveniently, Bayer markets products to kill the mites too.”

3. Spinning Science 

Big Tobacco was so intent on twisting the science of smoking that they created “The Tobacco Institute” for the purpose of funding industry-friendly science. All three companies–Bayer, Syngenta, and Monsanto–are strengthening their reach into the scientific community to enhance the credibility of their case that anything but pesticides are to blame for the honeybee collapse. Companies are funding scientific studies, cultivating alliances and strategic partnerships with farmers, beekeepers, and agricultural organizations in order to bolster the legitimacy of their arguments and position themselves as “friends of the bees.”

4. Buying Credibility: Experts on Payrolls and Coopting Groups

Big Tobacco also distorts science by funding researchers and co-opting professional organizations. Once again, pesticide companies are following that lead. Last June, Monsanto hosted a three-day “Bee Health Summit,” where the company greatly expanded its reach and influence in the scientific community.

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At the summit, Monsanto announced the formation of a Honey Bee Advisory Council, a strategic alliance comprised of Monsanto executives themselves along with others. Even with a friendly audience, a post-summit survey found that only 14 percent of attendees felt pesticides were covered well or usefully. In addition, the British Bee Keepers Association has received significant funding from Bayer, Syngenta, and other pesticide companies, an arrangement that some critics have called a quid pro quo for the organization’s endorsement of insecticides as “bee-friendly.”

5. Blaming Farmers

Big Tobacco likes to blame smokers who “should have known” that smoking was deadly. This shameless strategy is now being used by pesticide companies. Bayer’s Bee Care website emphasizes the “bee-responsible use” of its products and implies that any problem with neonics is caused by improper use of its products by farmers and others.

Similarly, Syngenta claims: “The small number of instances of damage to bee health from these pesticides has come from the very rare occasions when farmers have used the product incorrectly (e.g., not followed label instructions).” Syngenta even blames human fear for bee declines: “Many people are afraid of bees, wasps, hornets, and many other flying insects. This fear converts, unfortunately, into a major health threat to bees, as too many people simply kill them if they fly into a home or too near to people.”

6. Targeting Kids

Just as Phillip Morris aimed the Joe Camel character at youth, Bayer’s book for kids, called “Toby and the Bees,” features a friendly neighborhood beekeeper who explains to young Toby that bees are getting sick but “not to worry” as it’s just a problem with mites, and a special medicine will make the bees healthy–made by Bayer. The Bayer Bee Center is also promoting a coloring contest dubbed “Color Me Bee-autifully” to “encourage students 12 and under to learn about bee health.”

7. Attacking Regulators

The European Union is far ahead of the United States when it comes to taking action to protect bees from the harmful impacts of neonics. Just as Big Tobacco curries favor with policymakers, so does the pesticide industry.

Documents obtained by the Corporate Europe Observatory revealed that Syngenta, Bayer, and the European Crop Protection Association (the pesticides makers’ lobbying group) were engaged in a private behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign that began as early as June 2012 to prevent a ban on neonicotinoids in the European Union. Through a series of letters, these companies made accusations with questionable scientific or factual backing in an effort to convince European Commissioners that neonicotinoids were not the problem.

Action Needed Now to Save the Bees and our Food Supply

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Policymakers, the media, and the public should be aware of these tobacco-style tactics, which were used for years to mislead and delay policy action for decades. We cannot afford the same delay in protecting bees from further harm.

It’s time for the United States government to follow the lead of the European Union to protect bees and our food. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should heed the growing body of science linking neonics to bee declines and limit the use of these pesticides.

We must act before it’s too late. Our very food supply is at stake.

Read “Follow the Honey: 7 ways pesticide companies are spinning the bee crisis to protect profits” here.



Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in food industry marketing and lobbying tactics and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back. She is also the president of Eat Drink Politics, a consulting firm on food and beverage industry tactics, based in Oakland. You can follow her blog and find her on Twitter. Read more >

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  1. It isn't just neonicotinoids. the entire style of farming large mono-cultures is taxing soil health and biodiversity, the clearing of forest woodlands also affect bee health. there are many sources of bee population decline and the way for bee health is the same for all of us: sustainable agriculture that respects life on Earth not just profiteering. eradicate big ag. ban congressional and university woo'ing. keep science objective.
  2. Honk, honk, honk
    We all need to stop and take a deep breath or two. Even trained scientists don't know for certain why bee populations seem to be declining. There is only the usual biased speculation from both sides of the issue. Why, for once, can't our environmental activist leaders not jump to conclusions, instead take a reasoned position in strong support of competent research into the mystery? Pointing out the EU has banned something and suggesting we should unwittingly do the same is foolish and offensive. Are we not capable of learning and thinking for ourselves? This is how each and every one of us who care for our environment are made to look like silly geese. Some fool says "jump" and we don't even ask "how high?", instead just flail about noisily
  3. Given that what's at stake is our food supply chain and our health, delaying action is a greater risk than moving ahead with prudent solutions. The only justification for the current excessive use of pesticides is greed.

    Some things require immediate action. I doubt that any reasonable person would hesitate to taken a loaded pistol out of the hands of a toddler. The question isn't whether she is strong enough to pull the trigger. The question in such cases is "What's At Stake?".
  4. Marc
    Well put, Chef. Honk, are you kidding me? There is massive and increasing evidence - REAL evidence - that the problem is exactly as described in this article and hundreds of others. This isn't pro environmental spin. Spin is the jurisdiction of Monsanto et al, as perfected by big tobacco. And the nazis.
    In the end, if allowed to continue, this will amount to mass murder. Think I'm wrong? Maybe I am. Still, is it worth the risk? Why not ban these poisons that go in our food and end up in our food and water, and SEE if the bee population rebounds. Wouldn't that be an heroic and novel approach to a problem that threatens our entire food chain.
    But there's no money in heroism and novelty. Take care of shareholders and screw the rest of us.
  5. jkg2003
    Marc, you embarrass all of us with your rant. "Nazis", really? Is that appropriate?

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