How the pesticide industry tried to stop a bill to protect bees in Maryland

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Days after Maryland state legislators introduced a bill aimed at protecting pollinators by restricting the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in residential areas, a group of representatives of Bayer, Syngenta, CropLife America, Maryland Farm Bureau, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture planned and executed a counter-offensive. Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show the strategies they used over the next two and a half years.

The emails are a rare window into the pesticide industry’s playbook for trying to keep a group of controversial pesticides on the American market. The industry group touted pesticide industry efforts to protect pollinators, collaborated closely with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, and tried to recruit a bee expert to testify on their behalf, among other efforts to defeat the bills.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are the most widely used insecticides in the world. They are toxic to bees and other pollinators. The European Union has banned several neonics for outdoor use out of concern for pollinators. Over the winter of 2014 to 2015 when Maryland delegates drafted the first bill banning neonics, the state’s beekeepers lost 45 percent of their honey bee colonies. Globally, wild and domestic pollinator species are in decline. There is a growing body of evidence linking neonics to pollinator declines.

Although the Maryland Department of Agriculture has never attributed a bee kill to neonics, neonics have caused mass bee deaths in other places. Studies have demonstrated that neonics at levels found in the environment can impair bee brain cells, which makes them worse at navigating, foraging, and flying.

Effort to ‘kill’ pollinator protection bill

The Maryland Pollinator Protection Act was signed into law in May 2016, after a stronger bill died in committee in 2015. A 2014 version limited neonic purchases to certified pesticide applicators, but was withdrawn by its sponsor.

Although the 2015 and 2016 bills required labeling all neonic-treated seeds or plants sold in the state, and limited the sale of neonic insecticides to certified applicators (with exceptions for farmers and veterinarians), the 2016 bill passed only after legislators removed the labeling requirement, exempted pet treatments, lice and bedbug treatments, and indoor pest control products, and exempted people working under the supervision of certified pesticide applicators and farmers.

The law effectively banned neonic insecticide use except for certified pesticide applicators, farmers, and veterinarians, effective January 1, 2018. It imposed a $250 fine for first-time violations.

Delegate Anne Healey and five cosponsors introduced the original bill, HB 1285, to the Maryland state house on Feb. 7, 2014. Five days later, on February 12, Lynne Hoot, who was then a lobbyist for CropLife America and the executive director of Maryland Grain Producers and Maryland Agricultural Associates, a consulting firm that lobbied and provided public relations for agricultural associations, emailed a small group detailing “what I think we need to kill HB 1285.”

Recipients included staff from neonic producers Bayer and Syngenta, lobbyists for CropLife America and the Maryland Farm Bureau, and staff from Maryland Department of Agriculture. Hoot, who said she was prompted to do so by Bayer’s Director of State Affairs Allen Ayers, offered to coordinate the “circulation of supporting documentation” to oppose the bill.

Industry group outlines key strategies

Hoot asked the group how similar bills in other states fared and what information was used to defeat them. She also suggested the group cite research that implicated non-pesticide causes of U.S. pollinator decline, and frame the issue as one for the Environmental Protection Agency, not individual states, to decide.

“Anything we can showcase that EPA is on top of this will help us,” she wrote, before assigning “action items ” to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, CropLife America and others. Hoot also noted that some people in the nursery industry said they supported the bill, because it might bring them new business.”I did ask if they were OK with the precedent of the state legislature managing their business one product at a time, hopefully they will reconsider,” she wrote.

There are few windows into the pesticide industry’s strategies to counter pollinator concerns, but many of the Maryland industry group’s tactics are reflected in an internal 2017 CropLife America memo published in The Intercept’s 2020 article The Pesticide Industry’s Playbook for Poisoning the Earth. These strategies include building strong relationships with regulatory agencies, positioning the pesticide industry as a defender of bee health, and emphasizing non-pesticide factors like disease and varroa mites as the most significant causes of pollinator decline.

Hoot’s “action items” include finding the best people to talk to legislators to “show we care” about pollinator habitat

In the next two years, the industry group’s mailing list swelled to include 32 representatives from pest and landscaping companies, nurseries, and farms, plus chemical giants Dow, Monsanto, DuPont, and GrowMark. Some were registered lobbyists, and several on the email list represented companies that manufactured neonics. Maryland Agricultural Associates’ lobbyist Lindsay Dodd took over group facilitation from Hoot. (Dodd changed her last name to Thompson after the summer of 2015.)

Dodd organized conference calls to strategize about who should testify to the state’s General Assembly, what talking points to use, and what delegates to lobby at key points in the bills’ progression, according to the emails.

Industry groups sought ‘industry friendly’ message from U. Maryland bee researcher

On February 10, 2015, a CropLife America representative said he asked Bayer staff to recommend “any local bee expert that may be available to testify and be able to deliver an industry friendly message.” They suggested recently retired University of Maryland entomologist and bee expert Galen Dively.

Although a Bayer representative told the group Dively was “willing and available to help out” later that day, Dively never testified, he confirmed to U.S. Right to Know.

“As I recall, the opportunity to testify did not come up,” Dively said. “They probably sensed that I was not that negative on removing neonics from the homeowner uses. I would have been supportive of keeping neonic labeled uses for ag crops but that was not the main focus of this act.”

Industry’s talking points

On February 24, 2015, Dodd circulated some revised talking points for the upcoming house hearing. These points discussed the costs the state and its nursery industry would incur from labeling individual plants, determining whether plants from out-of-state were treated with neonics, testing plant material for neonics to enforce the law, and reduced sales due to a “warning label” on a product.

Dodd sent out another round of testimony coaching on March 7, 2015.

“Each speaker will likely only have 2-3 minutes and we have a lot to cover. After feedback from the Senate hearing, I think we really need to hammer home the science and be more assertive in refuting the proponents claims,” Dodd wrote.

In the email, Dodd outlined the “main ideas” for the industry group to present:

“-The label language is completely false according to peer reviewed science.

-Neonicotinoids are safe when used according to the labeled directions. These labels are legally binding and EPA has already updated them to further protect pollinators.

-No peer reviewed, un-debunked, scientific study using realistic environmental doses has demonstrated lethal or sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators.”

Anti-neonic advocates refuted these points in their testimony.

“Major knowledge gaps remain regarding the fate of neonics in the environment and their toxicity to non-target organisms,” University of Maryland Professor Carys Mitchelmore testified in support of the bill in 2015.”However, in the data that does exist, it is clear that the current use of neonicotinoids are likely to be impacting a broad range of non-target taxa, including pollinators and soil and aquatic invertebrates and hence threatens a range of ecosystem services.”

Anti-neonic advocates also cited the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Task Force on Systemic Pesticides’ 2015 publication, which reviewed more than 1,121 peer-reviewed studies and called for immediate restrictions on neonics. They also cited Maryland’s own Department of Legislative Services 2015 report on the issue, which said “evidence shows that the application of pesticides, particularly insecticides, kills or weakens thousands of honey bee colonies in the United States each year.”

Industry group assigns speakers to deliver talking points during testimony

In the March emails, Dodd included 18 “key points” to make in testimony, including: “Neonicotinoids have never been determined to be the cause of a bee death reported to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.”

The industry group tried to discredit scientific studies that concluded neonics endanger pollinators, and promoted others that found no sublethal effects. Other talking points touted EPA and Congressional Research Service publications that emphasized non-pesticide causes of pollinator decline. One said, “talk about the positive things that industry is doing to understand and enhance pollinator health and habitat.”

By March 9, 2015, the group had assigned speakers to deliver the eighteen “key points” during the house hearing. For example, Mark Schlosberg of the Maryland Association of Green Industries (MAGI) was assigned to deliver this: “Neonicotinoids are selective insecticides that do not target beneficial insects such as bees and earth worms.” Bayer scientists Iain Kelly and Becky Langer-Curry, meanwhile, were assigned to say that “many neonicotinoid products actually help to enhance the health of bees by protecting their habitat and forage,” and speak on “the general chemistry of neonicotinoids, their life-cycle and persistence. Why we started using neonics compared to other classes (without throwing currently registered products under the bus).”

Talking points Bayer Scientists Iain Kelly and Becky Langer-Curry were assigned to deliver at the hearing included testifying that neonics were better for pollinators than alternative pesticides, and “actually help to enhance the health of bees

Maryland Department of Agriculture backs industry arguments

Maryland Department of Agriculture staff were copied on the industry group’s strategy emails. They periodically provided other industry members with information helpful to the industry group’s testimony.

The MDA testified in person and in writing against various versions of the Pollinator Protection Act, citing a lack of department resources. For example, in their February 17, 2015 testimony, the MDA estimated they would need $1 million per year to enforce the bill’s neonic-treated plant labeling provision, which the bill did not provide.

The MDA also echoed reasons that were also on the industry group’s list of talking points, including that the bill was unlikely to help pollinators, and it was the wrong avenue for making change.

“To date, MDA has not documented any cases of neonicotinoid insecticides negatively impacting honeybees in Maryland,” they wrote.

The state already inspected honey bee hives, and were making efforts to improve hive health through different avenues, they testified.

“It is our position that EPA has always taken the lead on pesticide registration and labeling issues,” the MDA wrote. “MDA also feels that these restrictions would create confusion in the distribution chain and market place.”

In June 2014, Dodd asked MDA staff if she could fill a vacancy on Maryland’s Pesticide Advisory Committee, which advises the state’s Secretary of Agriculture on pesticide issues. That October, MDA staff endorsed Dodd and won her appointment.

Is MDA is too friendly with the pesticide industry?

Environmentalists say the emails show clear regulatory capture. “The emails validate what we have seen in so many other instances, where it appears the MD Dept of Agriculture is the mouthpiece for the agro-chemical industry. Remember, this bill had nothing to do with agriculture—it applied to consumer products only. So why was MDA a key opponent in this?” Maryland Pesticide Education Network (MPEN) Coordinator Bonnie Raindrop wrote.

“What is notable is that a lobbyist for the industry [Dodd] was the one leading the charge, actually preparing the strategy against the bill, and telling MDA what to say! This underscores the inappropriateness of allowing MDA to regulate thousands of highly toxic pesticides,” Raindrop wrote.

“MDA has no expertise concerning the public health or environmental impacts of these toxics. Their focus is advancing industrial agriculture. These emails underscore that MDA is a highly industry-captured agency.”

“…it appears the MD Dept of Agriculture is the mouthpiece for the agro-chemical industry.” – MPEN Coordinator Bonnie Raindrop

Raindrop and MPEN founder Ruth Berlin advocated for the various Pollinator Protection Act bills. They alerted key legislators to Maryland’s heavy pollinator losses and their related concerns about neonicotinoids, provided data, and lobbied for the bills.

The bill’s success in 2016 wasn’t the end of MPEN’s activity, either. Although the law took effect at the start of 2018, beekeeper allies reported that neonic products were still for sale to the general public in home and garden stores, Raindrop said. When MPEN volunteers checked, staff in about one in every three affected stores said they hadn’t even heard about the law change.

“Then we became aware that MDA was misinterpreting language in the law, which was intended to allow over 100 Restricted Use Product (RUP) retailers to sell neonic pesticides to certified applicators, to allow these RUP retailers to also sell banned consumer products to the public,” Raindrop wrote. “So in 2021, we provided issue education to support passage of a bill that closed this loophole.”

They succeeded in changing the law in 2021.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture did not respond to requests for comment.

MDA’s actions conflicted with department’s duties

It is generally not illegal for state departments to work with advocates, including paid lobbyists, to support or oppose legislation, government watchdog group Campaign Legal Center’s Kedric Payne said.

However, the MDA did not clearly disclose it was collaborating with the pesticide industry on its testimony, making it all the more influential, State Senator Clarence Lam (D-Howard and Baltimore counties) said. Lam sponsored the 2016 version of the Pollinator Protection Act.

“I think it carries more weight,” he said, when a state department testifies, compared to an advocacy organization. “We actually, as a legislature, prefer that departments weigh in on bills… because at the end of the day, they’re the ones implementing it,” he said.

However, the MDA testified during a time when it was unusual for state departments to do so, and their strong opposition could have led some legislators to believe that the MDA was providing good information, Lam said, “but it was very clearly slanted and skewed.”

“Most legislators don’t have a background in science. They rely on other information to make decisions,” Lam said.

That can come from other legislators, state department representatives, or outside lobbying organizations like the Farm Bureau.

“The challenge for a lot of my colleagues is that they may not fully recognize or grasp… the more reliable sources of information,” he said. “It is not hard to mislead, whether intentionally or unintentionally, fellow legislators, with information that may be skewed.”

“[The MDA was] not only clearly opposed, but they were working behind the scenes to undermine it,” Lam said.

The MDA met with legislators and fellow opponents, and “put out information that is marginally accurate but carries the weight of the department,” he said.

A misleading poll the MDA presented to the senate during SB 198 testimony in 2016 indicated that most pollinator stakeholders weren’t overly concerned about pesticides – even though only 23 percent of those polled represented beekeepers or conservation organizations.

Lam said he thought the bill would have worked better if it had been enforced by the Maryland Department of the Environment, rather than the Department of Agriculture.

“I am not a big fan of departments and agencies functioning as both the regulator and the advocate or cheerleader for an industry or sector” Lam said, due to the inherent conflicts of interest and the confusion it creates about a department’s role.

“In this instance they were very clearly a cheerleader for the farming industry and much less in their regulator role,” he said.

Other state efforts to enact neonic laws are ongoing

As of May 2020, the Maryland Pollinator Protection Act was one of six neonic-related state laws in the nation. Twenty-eight more were pending at that time, according to a table included in a joint letter that nine state Attorneys General sent to EPA in response to EPA’s neonic registration reviews.

Environmental lobbyist Chris Cowen has helped promote bills to regulate neonics in Minnesota, and said industry tactics are similar across the states.

“Bayer, Syngenta, all the big chemical companies along with the Farm Bureau, along with the big commodity organizations, along with ethanol, they’re all together. They’re all together and they support each other,” he said.

It’s common for those companies and organizations to work together with a state department of agriculture, he said.

“What these big companies are really good at doing are working behind the scenes.,” Cowen said.

One thing that keeps Cowen motivated is that the general public and a good number of legislators support environmental legislation, he said.

“I’ve done a lot of door-knocking and talked to a lot of people, and the average person understands the importance. Clean water [and] healthy soil are what you need to have happy pollinators, and nobody is against that,” he said.

Although Raindrop acknowledged it would have been better for pollinators if the neonic-treated plant labeling portion of the Maryland bill had also passed, she praised the bill that did pass as a “groundbreaking win” that would reduce neonic levels in residential landscapes and set a precedent for other states to pass similar legislation.

“Federally and at the state and local levels, we see this incredibly well-financed industry spending a lot of money to defeat any and all pesticide protections. That requires continual efforts to move protections forward, sometimes incrementally,” she wrote.

“In the arena of pesticides, we are dealing with agencies at the federal and state levels that are industry-captured. And the pesticide industry spends millions to defeat all efforts to put common sense laws in place to protect public health and the environment. It’s a David vs. Goliath battle. But if the Davids are nimble, smart, and work together, sometimes us Davids win,” Raindrop wrote.

Abbe Hamilton is an investigative reporter covering neonicotinoid science and policy for U.S. Right to Know.

Documents referenced in this post include:

Maryland’s Pollinator Protection Act of 2016

Maryland’s 2015 and 2014 bills seeking to restrict neonics, which died before a vote

Email thread from February 12-13, 2014 among Maryland agricultural lobbyists, agrichemical company reps, agricultural trade organizations, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Email thread from March 7-10, 2015 among Maryland agricultural lobbyists, agrichemical company reps, agricultural and landscaping trade organizations, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

February 10, 2015 email from CropLife America’s Jeff Case about recruiting a local bee expert.

February 10, 2015 email in which Bayer’s Allen Ayers says he’s secured a local bee expert.

February 24, 2015 email from Lindsay Dodd promoting talking points related to the cost of implementing the neonic plant labeling portion of the bill.

University of Maryland Professor Carys Mitchelmore’s 2015 testimony for the Pollinator Protection Act

Email from Carol Holko to Lynne Hoot on February 13, 2014 discussing legal precedents to the neonic bill.

Email from Carol Holko to Lindsay Dodd on February 12, 2015 discussing the MDA’s interpretation of the neonic bill language.

MDA’s testimony against the bill from February 17, 2015.

Email thread from June to October 2014 which resulted in Dodd’s appointment to the Maryland Pesticide Advisory Committee.

Screenshot of a poll the MDA presented during state senate testimony in 2016 from a recent Managed Pollinator Protection Plan (MP3) conference they held.

Screenshot of the poll responders, as presented by the MDA during state testimony in 2016.

Letter nine state Attorneys General sent to the EPA in May 2020 to comment on the EPA’s ongoing neonic reregistration process.

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