7 ways pesticide companies are spinning the bee crisis to protect profits

Follow the honey: 7 ways pesticide companies are spinning the bee crisis to protect profits

Follow the honey: 7 ways pesticide companies are spinning the bee crisis to protect profits

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If you like to eat, then you should care about what’s happening to bees. Did you know that 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 declines in bee populations are getting more attention, with entire campaigns devoted to saving bees. 

Do pesticides kill bees? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. It’s simple — follow the honey! That’s what Friends of the Earth did to uncover the tactics that pesticide companies use to cover up their bee-toxic secrets. 

Pesticides killing bees

Which pesticides kill bees? A strong and growing body of evidence points to exposure to a class of neurotoxic pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics — the fastest-growing and most widely used class of synthetic insecticides worldwide — as a key contributing factor to bee declines. US agriculture has become 48 times more toxic to bees and other insects since we began using neonicotinoids in the 1990s according to a peer-reviewed study by Friends of the Earth.

What do pesticides do to bees? 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 a  report from Friends of the Earth details, the leading pesticide corporations — Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta— 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. But we know the truth — pesticides that kill bees are made by these large corporations. 

Big Tobacco honed these strategies for decades, stalling action that resulted in millions of preventable deaths. Pesticide companies use strategies from the same playbook to spin the truth about their products. 

How pesticide companies spin the truth

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 their 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”.  Bayer’s Bee Care website features buzzing bees flying into a hive, sipping pollen from a lavender flower. “Bees and other pollinators are facing some key challenges in much of our modern world,” the website says. “Protecting them is a shared responsibility for us all, and this includes the crop protection industry.” That is why, Bayer says, it created its “Bee Care Program.” What you won’t find on the site is any indication that the company is the largest producer of neonicotinoids or any information about the role of its products in bee declines.

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-Monsanto and Syngenta have deployed a mix of PR tactics to divert attention away from pesticides. They ignored the fact that neonicotinoids are a key contributor to bee declines. Instead, they have typically promoted a “multiple factors” argument that downplays and manufactures doubt about the role of pesticides while emphasizing varroa mites, pathogens, and bee forage as primary forces threatening bees.

For example, Helmut Schramm, head of Bayer 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.

Bayer-Monsanto and Syngenta — are strengthening their reach into the scientific community to enhance the credibility of their case that anything but pesticides are to blame for the honey bee crisis. Companies are funding scientific studies and 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: Putting experts on payrolls and co-opting groups

A related way that Big Tobacco distorts science is to fund researchers and co-opt professional organizations. Once again, pesticide companies are following that lead. For example, Monsanto hosted a three-day “Bee Health Summit” where the company greatly expanded its reach and influence in the scientific community.

At the summit, Monsanto announced the formation of a Honey Bee Advisory Council, a strategic alliance comprised of Monsanto executives 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.

Also, 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

Another common tactic of Big Tobacco is to blame smokers who “should have known” that smoking was deadly. This shameless strategy is now being used by pesticide companies. For example, Bayer’s Bee Care website emphasizes the “bee-responsible use” of its products and implies that any problem with neonics is due to 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 saying: “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 children

Just as Phillip Morris aimed the Joe Camel character at youth, now comes the children’s book from Bayer called “Toby and the Bees” in which a friendly neighborhood beekeeper 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 — made by Bayer — will make the bees healthy. 

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.

Solutions to pesticide problems

There is no doubt — action is needed now to save the bees and our food supply.

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. We know that bees are killed by pesticides. We know which pesticides kill bees. And we know that without proper solutions, we’ll continue to see a horrific bee crisis.

It’s time for the United States government to follow the lead of the European Union to protect bees and our food. The Environmental Protection Agency should heed the growing body of science linking neonics to bee declines and limit the use of these pesticides. Congress should pass the Saving America’s Pollinators Act. The White House should push both Congress and federal agencies to move quickly.

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.

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