President Obama launched a federal investigation to find out what is driving the decline of honeybees—pollinators that serve as the matchmakers of the floral kingdom. They are dying off in droves, frightening environmentalists and scientists who fear the unfilled natural niche that collapsing bee colonies leave behind. Those concerns hit the national stage last month.
All of that has made the pesticide corporations nervous. Environmentalists have long argued that a widely used class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, are a major cause of bee die-offs. And green groups are hoping that White House attention—combined with a growing body of scientific evidence that points the finger at chemical crop treatments—will lead to an all-out ban on the pesticides. For the industry, that would be a major dent in sales. In 2009, neonics accounted for $2.6 billion in profits industry-wide. In an effort to protect their product, pesticide makers are loading up on high-powered lobbyists.
Bayer, the largest manufacturer of neonics, has signed former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt’s firm to lobby on the issue, according to disclosure records filed at the end of June. Gephardt himself is listed as a lobbyist for the company, along with his former chief of staff, Thomas O’Donnell, and aide Sharon Daniels.
Bayer isn’t the only pesticides maker fixing for a fight. Syngenta, the second-largest neonic manufacturer, is registered to lobby on pesticides. A Syngenta spokesperson said the company actively discusses “the pollinator issue” with government officials.
The lobbying push is backed by deep pockets. Bayer ponied up more than $2 million for all of its lobbying efforts in the first quarter of the year, according to lobbying disclosure records. Syngenta, meanwhile, paid out $350,000 in the same interval for total lobbying expenditures.
Environmentalists and public-health and food-safety advocates are also shelling out to make the case that pesticides are killing honeybees, but have spent considerably less cash. The Center for Food Safety, which lobbies against neonics, spent only $10,000 total on lobbying efforts in the first quarter of the year. Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, which contends neonics are the leading cause of bee deaths, spent just under $13,000 in the fourth quarter of last year.
Researchers have struggled to explain the insect epidemic, but generally cite stressors—including pesticides, parasites, poor nutrition, and genetics—as likely reasons for the decline.
Pollination is essential to the survival of crops such as apples, avocados, and lemons. Last month, the White House said bee pollination produces $15 billion worth of agricultural yields annually.
“We’re at a crisis point here,” said Lisa Archer, the food and technology program director for Friends of the Earth. “The question now is whether we’re going to listen to the alarm bells that are going off.”
This article appears in the July 2, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.
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