Is the USDA a danger to public health?


“Having research published in prestigious journals and being invited to present before the National Academy of Sciences should be sources of official pride, not punishment,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais. “Politics inside USDA have made entomology into a most dangerous discipline.” -- Steve Volk, Portland Press Herald, Oct. 28, 2015

An anecdote that recently buzzed into our ear reminded us that the bee crisis is by no means solved. A fellow had said that due to the weather pattern, his small Merced County almond orchard had not been well pollinated. "The set is terrible," he said.
When the crisis of bee mortality was first noticed, Valley congressmen blew immense quantities of hot air into the situation, found a few million here and there and sent it to USDA approved labs for research.
Then we waited, holding our breath because of the potential disaster wholesale destruction of pollinators implied. News leaked out slowly from the USDA-sponsored labs. We were told not to get our expectations up too high because there were "multiple" causes for the disorders affecting especially the commercially produced Honey bees. All of this would require immense study -- please send more funds. Congressmen promising immediate action on this dire issue came and they went until the problem was all safely folded into the special interest driven  US Department of Agriculture, an immense bureaucracy staffed largely by mediocrities in a number of scientific disciplines, which produces an endless flow of vague information in glossy magazines with real big colored pictures.
The USDA, like so many other government bureaucracies, is far more intent on maintaining and growing itself than it is on anything as problematic as producing accurate information about an ongoing crisis, which it is spent as much energy ignoring as it has spent ignoring Mad Cow Disease or farm subsidies by any other names.
The public should begin to examine the question: Is the USDA a danger to public health? Or perhaps more accurately, How much of a danger to public health is the USDA?  -- blj
Decline in Bee Population is Putting Global Food Industry at Risk
Bees and other pollinators face increasing risks to their survival, threatening foods such as apples, blueberries and coffee worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, the first global assessment of pollinators showed on Friday.
Pesticides, loss of habitats to farms and cities, disease and climate change were among threats to about 20,000 species of bees as well as creatures such as birds, butterflies, beetles and bats that fertilize flowers by spreading pollen, it said.
“Pollinators are critical to the global economy and human health,” Zakri Abdul Hamid, chair of the 124-nation report, told Reuters of a finding that between $235 billion and $577 billion of world food output at market prices depended on pollinators.
The food sector provides jobs for millions of people, such as coffee pickers in Brazil, cocoa farmers in Ghana, almond growers in California or apple producers in China.
Ever more species of pollinators are threatened, according to the study, the first by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) since it was founded in 2012. It was approved in talks in Kuala Lumpur.
IPBES is modeled on the U.N. panel on climate change, which advises governments on ways to tackle global warming.
“Regional and national assessments of insect pollinators indicate high levels of threat, particularly for bees and butterflies,” it said. In Europe, for instance, 9% of bee and butterfly species were threatened with extinction.
The study pointed to risks from pesticides such as neonicotinoids, linked to damaging effects in North America and Europe. But it said there were still many gaps in understanding the long-term impact.
“It’s definitely harmful to wild bees, and we don’t know what it means for populations over time,” Simon Potts, a co-chair of the report and professor at the University of Reading in England, told Reuters.
The study also said the impact of genetically modified crops on pollinators was still poorly understood.
And it said the amount of farm output dependent on pollination had surged by 300% in the past 50 years. The western honey bee, the most widespread pollinator managed by humans, produces 1.6 million tonnes of honey every year.
Still, the outlook was not all bleak. “The good news is that a number of steps can be taken to reduce the risks,” Zakri said.
Planting strips or patches of wild flowers could attract pollinators to fields of crops, and reduced use of pesticides or a shift to organic farming could also restrict the damage.
“There are some things that individuals on the ground can do,” Potts said. Smallholder farmers in Africa could let wild plants grow on part of their land, people in cities could plant flowers in their back gardens or window boxes.
Portland Press Herald
Suspended scientist alleges USDA tried to block his research on pesticides
Jonathan Lundgren, an entomologist, says the problems began when he began to publish research about the effects of pesticides on pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
Steve Volk  (Special To The Washington Post)
A prominent U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist is alleging that he was suspended after complaining that the agency was blocking his research into the harmful effects of pesticides on pollinators, such as bees and butterflies.
In a whistleblower complaint filed Wednesday, Jonathan Lundgren, an entomologist and 11-year veteran of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, says his supervisors retaliated against him by suspending him initially for 30 days before reducing it to 14 days.
The complaint, filed with the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, says his superiors began to “impede or deter his research and resultant publications” more than a year ago. Lundgren has also previously alleged that the agency tried to prevent him from speaking about his findings for political reasons and interfered with his ability to review the research of other scientists.
The trouble began after he published research and gave interviews about the impact that certain common pesticides were having on pollinators, according to a statement by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, which filed the complaint on his behalf. The whistleblower complaint says Lundgren’s “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.”
Over the past decade, there have been dramatic declines in the population of honeybees, which play an essential role in pollinating about one-third of the food Americans eat.
Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the Agricultural Research Service, declined to discuss the specifics of Lundgren’s case but said the agency is committed to maintaining scientific integrity.
“We take the integrity of our scientists seriously and we recognize how critical that is to maintaining widespread confidence in our research among the scientific community, policy-makers, and the general public,” Bentley said in a statement.
In suspending Lundgren, PEER says USDA cited two infractions: He provided some of his research to a scientific journal without proper approval, and he violated official travel policies in connection with lectures he delivered in Philadelphia and Washington.
In his complaint and related documents released by PEER, Lundgren says the submission of the journal article – which concerned the non-target effects of clothianidin, a widely-used nicotine-based pesticide, on monarch butterflies – was not inappropriate. He calls the travel violations an inadvertent paperwork error.
Lundgren has published work suggesting that soybean seeds pretreated withneonicotinoid pesticide produce no yield benefit to farmers, who pay extra for the seeds. He wrote a paper on the potential hazards of “gene silencing” pesticides, which he said require further study to determine if they would possibly harm other organisms. He also peer reviewed a report published by the Center for Food Safety titled “Heavy Costs,” which was critical of neonicotinoid pesticides for providing little to no benefit to farmers and adversely effecting bees.
Lundgren, a 2011 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, has given interviews on aspects of his research, including a widely distributed interview with Minnesota Public Radio, and spoke before the National Academy of Sciences. According to the complaint, his suspension was based in part on the paperwork associated with that trip.
“Having research published in prestigious journals and being invited to present before the National Academy of Sciences should be sources of official pride, not punishment,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais. “Politics inside USDA have made entomology into a most dangerous discipline.”
The whistleblower filing culminates months of speculation about Lundgren in the small community of commercial beekeepers and researchers studying their decline. Earlier this year, Lundgren’s dispute with his superiors became evident in a scientific journal.
A paper published in Environmental Science & Policy, with the sole listed author Scott Fausti, includes the following footnote: “I would like to acknowledge Dr. Jonathan Lundgren’s contribution to this manuscript. Dr. Lundgren is an entomologist employed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). However, 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.”
That paper suggests that the combination of federal mandates for corn ethanol production and the advent of genetically modified corn crops have produced a host of unintended adverse consequences, including rising environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, stronger pest resistance, and inflated corn prices.
Increasing pest resistance is of particular concern for beekeepers, whose bee populations have been declining at rates deemed “unsustainable” by Darren Cox, president of the American Honey Producers Association. Increased resistance creates a need for stronger pesticides, bringing potential harm to bees. “Beekeepers have been heavily involved in insuring that all scientists are free to conduct unfettered research,” says Cox.
In the statement, ARS spokesman Bentley said, “As one of the world’s leading promoters of agriculture and natural resources science and research, USDA has implemented a strong scientific integrity policy to promote a culture of excellence and transparency. That includes procedures for staff to report any perceived interference with their work, seek resolution, and receive protection from recourse for doing so.”
But Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, said Lundgren’s whistleblower complaint adds to the debate about scientific freedom. He said USDA is essentially saying, “‘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.”
Mother Jones
This Scientist Uncovered Problems With Pesticides. Then the Government Started to Make His Life Miserable.
Tom Philpott
Until fairly recently, Jonathan Lundgren enjoyed a stellar career as a government scientist. An entomologist who studies how agrichemicals affect the ecology of farm fields, he has published nearly 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals since starting at the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Brookings, South Dakota, in 2005. By 2012, he had won the ARS's "Outstanding Early Career Research Scientist" award, and directorship of his own lab.
USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren has "gone from golden boy to public enemy No. 1," says the head of the group representing him.
But recently, things have changed. His work has "triggered an official campaign of harassment, hindrance, and retaliation" from his superiors, Lundgren alleged in an official complaint filed with USDA scientific integrity authorities last year. Lundgren made the battle with his USDA superiors public in October, two months after the agency imposed a 14-day without-pay suspension on him. The charges—laid out in a August 3 letter to Lundgren by John McMurtry, associate director of the ARS's Plains Area—centered on infractions regarding a trip to the East Coast to present research, and a failure to get proper clearance from his superiors before submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed journal.
Lundgren, who is currently not authorized to speak to the media, has released a detailed rebuttal of those charges in a document put together by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which is representing him in the dispute.
But there's no doubting his knack for conducting research that raises troubling questions about some of the agrichemical industry's most lucrative existing products and promising future ones. "He's gone from golden boy to public enemy No. 1," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.
Before digging into the details of Lundgren's alleged infractions and punishment, it's worth having a look at Lundgren's recent research, which, Ruch says, led him "off the reservation" and into a world of "disciplinary disco."
In his August 3 letter announcing Lundgren's two-week suspension, the ARS's McMurtry declared two topics of Lundgren's research to be "sensitive"—meaning, he writes, subjects that agency scientists can't publish or speak to media about without "prior approval at the Area and National Program levels."
It's abundantly clear that many of Lundgren's findings don't jibe with industry interests.
Now, it's unclear exactly what makes a topic "sensitive." Weeks ago, a spokesman for the Agricultural Research Service's press office told me that he would look up the agency's formal criteria for sensitivity and divulge it to me. Since then, he has repeatedly declined to answer the question. But it's abundantly clear that many of Lundgren's findings don't jibe with industry interests.
Take neonicotinoids, the globe's most widely used class of insecticides with annual sales of about $2.6 billion. In a peer-reviewed 2015 paper co-authored with a South Dakota State University professor—the one the ARS accuses him of submitting for publication without proper internal approval—Lundgren found that one common neonic, clothianidin, marketed by Bayer, harms monarch butterflies at levels commonly found in Midwestern milkweed plants, the endangered insect's habitat and food source. In a 2011 study, Lundgren and his team found that another one, Syngenta's thiamethoxam, didn't do much at all to protect soybeans from its target, crop-eating aphids, but did significantly reduce populations of insects that eat aphids.
Then there's Lundgren's work on RNA interference, an emerging insecticidal technology that promises to kill targeted insects and weeds by silencing genes crucial to their survival, leaving everything else unaffected. GM seed/agrichemical giant Monsanto has placed great hope in RNAi, as this novel genetic technology is known. In a 2013 paper, Lundgren and USDA colleague Jian Duan noted that the great bulk of the research done on RNAi involves using the technology for human medicine, not to kill specific insects. They also challenged the claim that the technology can target particular pests and leave everything else in the ecosystem alone, and concluded that it's "largely unknown" how long the RNAi pesticide material would persist in the environment. In 2014, Lundgren served on a panel of independent scientists convened by the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the technology's risks. The scientists' report echoed the assessment of Lundgren's paper.
As Monsanto's new technology makes its way through the regulatory system, the questions raised by Lundgren are slowing it down. In late October, the USDA quietly greenlighted Monsanto's RNAi-engineered corn strain designed to kill an insect called the corn rootworm—the first RNAi pesticide product the agency has approved. Because of the odd system the United States uses to regulate new GM crops (explained here and here), the USDA review process doesn't directly assess the possible impacts that novel pesticides might have on ecosystems, the topic of Lundgren's research.
That task falls to the Environmental Protection Agency—and the EPA appears to be taking the questions raised by Lundgren quite seriously. Days after the USDA gave Monsanto's new corn the thumbs-up, the EPA granted it only "limited registration," which does not allow commercial sale and distribution of the novel corn or its seed. The EPA would not comment on why it declined to fully register the product.
Meanwhile, the USDA declined my request to interview Lundgren on RNAi pesticides in the context of the recent regulatory decisions regarding Monsanto's corn. "I'm sorry, but Dr. Lundgren is not available for media opportunities at this time," an ARS spokeswoman told me, after stringing me along for three days.
All of which brings us back to the substance of Lundgren's dispute with his USDA superiors over violations of travel and publication protocol. According to PEER's Ruch, both incidents involve the USDA enforcing rules in an extraordinarily exacting standard.
The travel controversy involved a two-stop East Coast trip that Lundgren took in March, to appear on a panel at a National Academy of Sciences conference in Washington, DC, on the role of genetic engineering in pest management, and to address the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance in Philadelphia.
Lundgren's trip to present his research to prestigious groups cost him roughly thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket travel expenses and lost wages.
According to Ruch, ARS scientists routinely assume they have de facto permission to present at such prestigious fora. The typical procedure is to file paperwork requesting travel, assume it will be granted, and embark on the trip. In hiswhistleblower's narrative, Lundgren acknowledges that he filed his paperwork at the last minute, but adds that such situations are not uncommon—he notes three other colleagues who traveled under similar conditions within six weeks of this trip.
But when Lundgren landed in Washington, he learned that permission for the trip had been denied—and that because of the denial he was officially absent without leave (AWOL) from his post in Brookings. Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences and Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance had paid for and booked his travel—a routine situation, says PEER's Ruch. But since permission for the trip had been denied, Lundberg was in violation of ARS rules for accepting travel expenses without prior approval and obliged to pay them back to the conference organizers out of his own pocket. In all, Ruch says, Lundgren's trip to present his research to the NAS and Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance cost him roughly $3,000 in out-of-pocket travel expenses and lost wages.
Lundgren's bosses never provided any reason for not okaying the trip, Ruch says. The ARS declined to comment on Lundgren's claim that his last-minute paperwork filing was not unusual among the service's scientists, or that denying permission for a trip to present research was unusual.
Lundgren's other major infraction, publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal without approval from his superiors, follows a similar arc. According to Lundgren, on January 5 of this year, he emailed the paper—on the effect of neonic pesticides on monarch butterflies—to his superior and interpreted her response (which is included in Lundgren's whistleblower's narrative) as permission to submit it for publication, based on routines he had followed in his decade at ARS and his prior experience submitting papers to nearly 100 peer-reviewed papers. His superior later said she had never given permission to publish the paper, giving no other reason than it was a "sensitive" topic. The paper, meanwhile, passed peer review and was published in April 2015 issue of the Science of Nature.
Another time, the ARS forced Lundgren to remove his name from a study on which he collaborated, according to South Dakota State University economist Scott Fausti. Under his sole byline, Fausti published a paper in the peer-reviewed journalEnvironmental Science & Policy in October, teasing out the ecological and economic consequences of the great boom in US corn production that occurred after the government ramped up ethanol mandates in the mid-2000s. Fausti appended this extraordinary footnote to it:
I would like to acknowledge Dr. Jonathan G. Lundgren's contribution to this manuscript. Dr. Lundgren is an entomologist employed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). However, 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.
So who's right, the USDA or Lundgren? There's always a "he said, she said" aspect to employment disputes. But until the agency articulates what precisely makes a topic "sensitive"—and why a blockbuster pesticide (neonics) and a potential blockbuster pesticide (RNAi) have been so deemed—this looks an awful lot like the case of a public scientist being arbitrarily silenced on matters of intense public interest.