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.

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 A 2014 version limited neonic purchases to certified pesticide applicators, but was withdrawn by its sponsor.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.

The industry group outlines their 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.

Excerpt from Hoot’s “action items” in her February 2014 email. This point, which references the Maryland Green Industries Council (MAGIC) lobbying organization and the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts (MASCD), discusses finding the best people to talk to legislators about the bill, and 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).”

The talking points that 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.

Environmentalists say 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.

The MDA’s actions were not illegal, but conflicted with some of the 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

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

An 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.

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

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

A 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research contract gave Bayer control of neonics study methods, but university researchers claim full credit

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A research contract gave multinational pesticide manufacturers ample influence over pesticide research conducted at a state university.

Experts in research ethics found fault with the influence the contract gave the funders, and linked the situation to broader transparency failures in corporate-funded research.

Resulting scientific studies only acknowledged the funds the pesticide manufacturers contributed to the project, despite the contract granting them influence over the study methods. University researchers say this is because the pesticide manufacturers’ involvement was less than what was outlined in the contract.

In 2017, Bayer and Syngenta, two companies that manufacture neonicotinoid insecticides, gave $301,671 to Iowa State University (ISU) researchers for a project titled “Estimating the exposure to neonicotinoid residues in pollinator-attractive habitat adjacent to corn and soybean fields.”

Start of the 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU.

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are one of the most commonly used insecticides in the world, and are toxic to bees and other pollinators. They are systemic insecticides, which means a plant can absorb and distribute them throughout all its parts.

When the ISU researchers proposed this research, they cited existing evidence that neonics from crop fields wind up in nearby flowers, whether they are weeds or intentionally-planted pollinator refuges.

Excerpt from the problem statement of the 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU.

The research contract sought to answer whether the neonic levels in pollinator plantings, or “prairie strips”, next to crop fields were high enough to hurt pollinators. One impetus for the study was to determine whether those plantings could harm bees and butterflies by luring them to pesticide-contaminated food. Another was to assess whether it was necessary to maintain a 125-foot pesticide-free buffer around monarch butterfly breeding habitat, according to the contract.

The contract was prepared after the funders and ISU faculty discussed their shared study interests during the 2016 International Congress of Entomology, ISU News Service Director Angie Hunt said. Hunt said she was speaking on behalf of Matthew O’Neal, Joel Coats, and Steve Bradbury, all ISU faculty listed as study personnel funded by the contract.

“Those conversations led to Iowa State’s development of a research proposal to measure exposure in prairie strips, as the strips provided a location where neonics and bees would likely be found,” Hunt said. Bayer and Syngenta didn’t write the contract’s statement of work, she said:

“Iowa State University researchers drafted the statement of work; it was not a collaborative effort [with the funders].”

What the research contract allows Bayer to do

The contract let Bayer advise on the study’s methods and for its employee to assist on the “design, conduct, and interpretation of the study.”

“Specific methods from Bayer will be utilized to extract samples of pollen, nectar, leaves, water, and soil from the field sites,” the contract stated. “Samples will be stored before extraction and after extraction according to best practices provided by Bayer CropScience.”

“Extraction Procedures” section of 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU.

The methods also said that “ISU and Bayer will work together” prior to analyzing neonicotinoid residues on any samples “to select standards and receive training for the Toxicology graduate student regarding analytical methods.”

The contract empowered Bayer scientist Dan Schmehl to assist with the “design, conduct, and interpretation of the study.” Bayer employee Michael McCarville was slated to “interface with growers participating in the study.”

The contract also said that Bayer may sample farmer participant seeds, provide transit stability samples to ensure the stability of relevant analytes and metabolites in pollen and nectar samples, and train two “team members” at their North American headquarters.

Furthermore, the contract required ISU to give Bayer and Syngenta 30 days to review and comment on all prospective publications or presentations to determine if they contained any confidential information.

“If Bayer and Syngenta raise no objection within the notification period above,” then ISU could proceed, according to the contract. It also required ISU to obtain the funders’ permission before accepting federal funding or otherwise involving a federal agency in the project.

Experts flag Bayer’s control over the research 

“This isn’t really an independent university study,” -Lisa Bero

Experts say the contract gave Bayer a level of control over the research that they expected to be disclosed in the final publication. “What’s interesting here to me is, this isn’t really an independent university study because we’ve got two Bayer employees who are actually on the project. So, this is really just a joint company project that involves some university researchers,” Lisa Bero said of the contract. Bero is a professor of medicine and public health, and a chief scientist for the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at University of Colorado.

Paul Thacker, an investigative journalist specializing in research conflicts of interest, agreed. He noted the contract puts Bayer in charge of setting the standards and methods, as well as the null values for the sampling.

“[The contract] makes these guys look like they’re a lab for hire… Bayer could have hired a contract research lab to do this exact kind of research, but then it would’ve been a Bayer study. But they didn’t want it to be a Bayer study,” he said.

Although it’s common for funders to have the right to review manuscripts prior to publication, Thacker said he interprets the contract to mean that the funders could also stop publication, quoting this provision: “If Bayer and Syngenta raise no objection within the notification period above, then University has the right to proceed with public disclosure.”

“That was very worrisome,” Thacker said. He also took issue with the clause concerning federal funding. “What if [ISU] found a problem and wanted to notify the EPA? … They can’t. It’s just weird.”

Bayer’s level of influence, as outlined in the contract, ought to justify authorship or acknowledgements in resulting publications, experts said.

“Given that Bayer scientist Dan Schmehl was listed as assisting with the ‘design, conduct, and interpretation of the study’ in the contract, I think that should have been declared in the published paper. He should probably have been listed as an author for that reason, even if he did not write any of the sentences in the final paper,” Erik Millstone said. Millstone, a professor emeritus at the University of Sussex, researches the causes and consequences of scientific and technological change in the food and agricultural sectors and has studied corporate influence on science and policy.

Bero agreed.

“They have very significant roles in the project,” she said of Bayer’s Schmehl and McCarville.

McCarville’s stated role, although smaller, is significant, she said.

“If this is analogous to a clinical trial, he’s kind of like the person enrolling patients in the trial,” Bero said. “Maybe he wouldn’t appear as an author, but he would certainly be acknowledged, as he interfaces with the growers.”

Studies referred to Bayer and Syngenta only as funders

So far, the ISU team has produced two scientific publications related to the contract. Both say the work was funded by a grant from Bayer and Syngenta.

The 2020 paper in Molecules, a MDPI publication, describes a method the ISU researchers used to analyze pollen and leaf tissue samples for neonics. The paper explicitly says, “The authors declare no conflict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results.”

The Conflict of Interest statement on the ISU team’s 2020 paper

It mentions that Bayer provided the analytical chemical standards for the analysis.

The 2022 paper, in Agriculture, Ecosystems, and the Environment, an Elsevier publication, describes the levels of various neonics they found in cropland-adjacent soil and leaf tissue, including milkweed, and determines that the levels were not high enough to hurt monarch butterfly larvae. It says the authors have “no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.”

The Funding, Conflict of Interest, and Acknowledgements sections of the ISU team’s 2022 paper.

Neither publication names Schmehl, McCarville, or any other contributions Bayer made besides funding and the analytical standards.

ISU describes Bayer’s contributions to the study

According to ISU, Bayer’s methodological and logistical contributions were less than what’s described in the contract, and that’s why neither publication mentions Bayer in any context other than funding and providing analytical samples.

“The grant lists a limited range of methodological options that could be used if considered necessary. Bayer’s contributions were limited to technical advice to ensure methods were within industry standards,” Hunt said.

What parts of the contract that cited Bayer’s involvement were utilized?

“While the Iowa State University team was informed of Bayer’s analytical chemistry and sampling techniques, the analytical method published by Hall et al. 2020 was developed solely by Hall and others at Iowa State. Sample collection and storage followed generally accepted practices,” Hunt said. “Dan Schmehl provided training on how to extract pollen and nectar from individual bees.”

Hunt said ISU was not aware of Michael McCarville interacting with any growers, despite his mention in the contract.

Bayer also provided analytical standard samples for ISU’s chemical analysis, she confirmed. But Bayer did not conduct their own analyses of farmer participants’ treated seeds, nor did ISU use the transit stability samples that Bayer provided for them, Hunt said. ISU researchers did visit Bayer’s headquarters in 2017 to present their study proposal and tour Bayer’s bee research facility, she said.

ISU said Schmehl provided training to extract pollen and nectar from bees, and advised on industry standards expected by the EPA. But U.S. Right to Know obtained an email thread from April 2018 in which O’Neal asked Schmehl whether they should include a certain site in the second year of their study, since it was using chlorantraniliprole, a non-neonic seed treatment.

Schmehl responded: “You are correct that we will not use chlorantraniliprole since this is not within scope for the methods developed to screen for the neonics.”

Schmehl then asked for the scope of the second year’s project scope and budget so Bayer could work on extending the funding agreement for another year.

“As soon as sites and scope are confirmed, I want to get our team in contact with your contract department so that we can extend our agreement from last year to a second year and get this project officially funded for you. What is the latest on corn planting? Are the sites proposed for the continuation of our study prepared for our use?” Schmehl asked the researchers.

“The email you referenced was a conversation about the scope of future work, not a request for technical contribution to the research,” Hunt said when asked why the researchers sought Schmehl’s advice on sampling sites, and what other matters he advised on.

Bayer spokesperson Kyel Richard did not respond when asked to name Schmehl’s and Bayer’s specific contributions to the methodology.

“University researchers play an invaluable role in ensuring growers can use agriculture technologies safely, sustainably, and effectively. We have a long history of working alongside and supporting university researchers – this kind of university/company collaboration is very common and important across science-based industries,” he said in a statement.

“We stand behind our work with university researchers, and as a science-based company we are committed to transparency and independence of science.

“Depending on the research project, companies can contribute to the work of university researchers in a variety of ways, including by providing resources (e.g., funding, products, equipment) or with more involved support (e.g., making nonbinding proposals for study design, data collection, data analysis). Importantly, the researchers remain in control of the project at all times, including any results. According to good scientific publication practice, it is important to us that researchers properly acknowledge our contributions in scientific publications just as they appropriately acknowledge the contributions of every other participant.”

Richard referred to Bayer’s statements on transparency. Under “Transparency for our Scientific Collaborations,” the company says they “publicly disclose new contract-based scientific collaborations with universities, public research institutions and individuals in Germany via the Bayer Science Collaboration Explorer (BSCE).”

That database “has successfully piloted in Germany, and we will include data on scientific collaborations in the United States in the near future,” Richard said.

However, there have been cases when the chemical industry has obscured the full extent of its role in scientific studies. For example, internal Monsanto documents released during litigation over the human health impacts of the glyphosate-based herbicide called Roundup, showed the company engaged in ghostwriting, or secretly authoring journal articles that were supposedly authored by academic researchers. Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2018.

Did Bayer’s role in methodology merit disclosure?

There is a discrepancy between what Bayer was contractually bound to provide, and the acknowledgement of their role in the published studies, Thacker said. “Either [ISU] violated the contract or they violated the acknowledgements. Those two things don’t match,” he said.

“No one who would pick up the studies would have any clue of Bayer’s legally acknowledged involvement.”

The contract itself, Thacker said, is a legally binding document, quoting: “University will conduct the testing in strict compliance with the Project and agrees not to deviate from the Project unless agreed by all parties. University will strictly conform to all regulations which may apply to its activities in the framework of the Project.” If ISU didn’t plan to follow the contract’s work designations, Thacker said, “why put it in there?”

MDPI conflict of interest guidelines state that authors must disclose “any personal circumstances or interest that may be perceived as influencing the representation or interpretation of reported research results,” and “Any role of the funding sponsors in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to publish the results must be declared in this section.”

MDPI’s authorship guidelines state that authorship should be granted to someone who substantially contributes to the study concept or design, or data collection, analysis or interpretation, drafts or revises the publication, approves the final version of the publication, and accepts accountability for all aspects of the work. “Those who contributed to the work but do not qualify for authorship should be listed in the acknowledgments.”

Elsevier’s guidelines require a statement on the role of the publication’s sponsors in study design, data collection, analysis, or interpretation, report writing, and decision to submit the article for publication. “If the funding source(s) had no such involvement, it is recommended to state this.”

Editors for Molecules and Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment, as well as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) did not return requests for comment about their conflict of interest standards.

“ISU seems to be indicating… that Bayer had a much lesser role than indicated in the contract,” Bero said. She said that it could be hard for an editor of a publication to determine whether ISU’s disclosure was adequate based on the available information.

“It is very difficult to know what the truth is,” she said.

No disclosure of concurrent grants from the same companies

Aside from the question of disclosing Bayer’s methodological contributions, the ISU researchers apparently did not disclose the other funding they were receiving concurrently from Bayer and Syngenta.

Elsevier recommends that authors declare any financial interests or relationships within the last three years related to the subject matter but not directly to the manuscript.

According to O’Neal’s CV, he received a separate $8,000 grant from Syngenta in 2019. O’Neal was also part of a Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) grant (2018-2021) that received matching funds from agrichemical companies, including Bayer and Syngenta. Although outside of the Elsevier publication’s three-year window, O’Neal and two colleagues also received a $539,913 grant from Monsanto between 2015 and 2018.

According to Bradbury’s CV, he was a part of the same 2018-2021 FFAR grant with matching agrichemical industry funds as O’Neal. He received $45,000 from Bayer, Syngenta, and Dupont between 2017 and 2018 to fund an IPM conference, and accepted $98,850 from Monsanto from 2018-2021 for a monarch butterfly study.

Dr. Coats has not publicly updated his CV since 2014, but Bradbury’s CV lists him on the $98,950 Monsanto grant from 2018-2021.

The grants that fell within the three year window of publication should have been disclosed, Bero said.

Millstone said the authors may have provided “all the information that was formally required by that journal, but not all the information that could be relevant, and maybe not all the information that Elsevier asserts authors should declare.”

“If they had agreed and signed other contracts, that should have been disclosed under Elsevier’s rules,” he added.

ISU said that “the authors provided the appropriate disclosures applicable to the research” when asked why they didn’t disclose Bayer’s “technical advice” contributions, or whether they notified the publishers of the other grants they received from the funders within the three-year window.

Other conflicts of interest

The potential benefits of this research to Bayer and Syngenta are visible to Thacker.

“It’s Bayer. Their job is to sell pesticides, it’s not to save butterflies,” he said.

The research questions could be interpreted as motivated by a concern for potential litigation or regulation, he said.

“Is [the research out of] concern that you’re harming butterflies, or is it concern that you’re going to get an expanded buffer or pesticide ban,” he said.

Pesticide-free buffers mean less land available for pesticide application, he noted.

Dr. Millstone said he’s observed a pattern in his work, in which industry-sponsored studies “purporting to put some industrial product or process in the clear are cunningly contrived to produce as favorable results as possible while also cunningly concealing the fact that it’s so contrived.”

“You decide what answers you want and you contrive a methodology to give you the answer you want, then you report your methodology as if that is the only sensical thing to do in the first place,” he said.

When asked whether Bayer’s role in the study constituted a conflict of interest, Hunt said that all ISU participants in the study complied with the university’s conflict of interest and commitment policy.

Further grants

Bayer awarded the ISU researchers $96,302 in April 2018, a year after the first grant was signed, to continue the sample collection and chemical analysis started in 2017. The 2018 grant had all the same stipulations involving Bayer as the 2017 grant, except it no longer referred to Bayer’s transit stability samples, or funding for training opportunities at Bayer headquarters.

In 2019, the team received a third yearlong grant of $90,000 from Syngenta and BASF to focus further on pollen and nectar collection. The 2019 grant does not mention any methodological contributions from the funders.

A future manuscript from the ISU team will analyze “pollen and nectar collected by bees (A. mellifera and Bombus spp.) within these prairie strips” for neonics, according to the group’s 2022 Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment paper.

This work’s relation to broader patterns of corporate-funded research

“Why on earth did the companies bother to go to the university academics and ask them to do the work rather than simply doing it themselves?” Millstone asked. “They’ve got the technological capability, in fact, in some respects they’ve got more technology and resources than the academics have.”

“I think the companies Bayer and Syngenta were funding this to try to give an illusion of independence and objectivity to the study.” – Erik Millstone

“I think the companies Bayer and Syngenta were funding this to try to give an illusion of independence and objectivity to the study,” Millstone said.

What does it mean for academic literature when corporate influence or conflicts of interest are not adequately disclosed?

“Corporate sponsors want to guide the selection of questions that researchers study, and then they try to influence which data are collected, how those data are interpreted, and which conclusions are reached,” Millstone said.

“Having invested in generating reassuring narratives about their products, those studies are fed into policy-making institutions, like the FDA and EPA,” he said, while corporations are also influencing those agencies’ scientists, as well as the policymakers regulating their products.

“The net result is a regime in which the protection of public and environmental health is compromised and undermined to benefit corporate and commercial interests.”

U.S. Right to Know obtained the documents for this report through an Iowa Open Records Law request to Iowa State University.

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

Documents referenced in this piece include:

The 2017 contract between Bayer, Syngenta, and ISU

ISU’s 2020 paper in Molecules

ISU’s 2022 Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment paper

Matching funds documents from a Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research grant to researchers including O’Neal and Bradbury that ran 2018-2021

A 2018 email thread between Bayer’s Dan Schmehl and Matt O’Neal

Bayer pressured researchers over neonic study results, but researchers pushed back

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Agrichemical giant Bayer helped fund a study by university academics, then pressured them to omit photos that implicated a defective insecticide-treated seed product as a threat to bees, according to communications obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

Several seed and insecticide companies, including Bayer, paid Ohio State University researchers to determine how much their insecticide-coated seed products affected bees during corn planting season in 2014 and 2015. After the researchers presented their preliminary results to “stakeholders,” which included funders, a Bayer official asked that their final report exclude photos of insecticide-coated corn seeds in which the product appeared defective. He also urged the researchers to qualify statements in the final report that discussed threats to bee health in ways that benefited Bayer’s corporate interests.

One of the seeds Johnson and Watters photographed after they observed insecticidal coatings flaking off in the field in 2015.

Although the photos and all the researchers’ conclusions ultimately made it to the final publication, internal emails show the seed and chemical industry funders intensely scrutinizing the researchers’ findings during pre-publication presentations. The study’s funding contract allowed funders to review and comment on findings prior to publication, and required pre-approval for any press releases or sharing of results.

This situation serves as an example of how agrichemical companies attempted to influence scientific research at a public university. Emails show how an industry funder tried to control and spin researchers’ results. Internal communications and research contracts are elements of sponsored research that are typically hidden from the public, but in this case, they provide insight into corporate sponsors’ involvement in the research process.

Concerns about bee deaths 

The main funders of this research were chemical companies that manufacture neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely-used insecticide. Neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, are often  delivered to crops via a colorful coating on the seed. Neonics are systemic, which means the seed grows into a plant containing the insecticide throughout, so it kills any bug that bites it. Since they are insecticides, neonics are also toxic to bees and other beneficial pollinator insects.

The companies manufacturing neonics have been trying to shape the narrative about bees and insecticides for more than a decade, as concerns have grown about harm to bees.

In 2008, there was a major honey bee die-off in Germany that researchers traced back to the planting of neonic-coated seeds. The coatings were flaking off the seeds as tractors drove around in the fields towing corn planters, which are mechanical devices that plant corn seeds one at a time into the ground. The mechanical planting process churned up clouds of neonic-imbued dust that killed bees. Bayer said it was a bad batch of seed, and they released a paper the following year announcing they would retrain seed manufacturers, improve the coating ingredients, and develop dust-cutting modifications for planters. But a 2012 Purdue University paper listed neonic-contaminated dust from corn planters as a route of neonic exposure for bees. Canada was able to link bee deaths to corn and soybean planting events in 2012 and 2013.

The next year, the nonprofit Pollinator Partnership formed the Crop Dust Research Consortium (CDRC), which funded research to determine the best practices for minimizing honey bee exposure to seed dust. Its funders included companies such as Bayer, Syngenta, and BASF, all of which manufacture insecticidal seed coatings; trade groups with direct financial interests in neonic-coated seeds; and beekeeping and agricultural interest groups.

The CDRC said that its goal across all research objectives was to “produce peer-reviewed published papers to advance the understanding of the issue through open and transparent oversight.” Its material explicitly said the research was not intended as an endorsement of seed treatment, neonics, or any other specific practice. One of its objectives was to test a new lubricant Bayer developed that was intended to contain the coatings better than existing lubricants.

In 2014, the CDRC granted $157,224 to Dr. Reed Johnson and agronomist Harold Watters of Ohio State University. The researchers were to characterize bee visits to flowers around cornfields during spring planting to figure out how to reduce pesticide exposure during those visits, and to test how well various seed lubricants reduced dust. In 2015, CDRC granted the lab an additional $145,000 to continue the research.  In addition, the researchers were to investigate the long-term health consequences of bee colonies exposed to insecticide-contaminated dust from corn planters, and the efficacy of the CDRC’s recommendations in preventing bee exposure to planter dust. Researchers in Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, and Ontario also received funding.

Johnson and Watters determined there was very little difference in the amount of neonic dust generated by different kinds of corn planters, and that Bayer’s new lubricant didn’t outperform the other lubricants. This conclusion was published in the CDRC final report in 2017. Johnson and Watters also documented higher neonic levels in bee-collected pollen, and an uptick in bee deaths during corn planting season. However, they didn’t find evidence that the contaminated pollen killed the bees (bees could have died by direct exposure to the planter dust) and the neonic exposures didn’t appear to impact longer-term colony strength or overwintering success. They published these conclusions in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in 2020, in addition to the CDRC final report.

The conversations leading up to publication show that, although the researchers ultimately published all their findings, they first had to respond to funders who had a financial interest in the results as they reviewed and suggested changes to their report.

The flaky seed coating ordeal

During corn planting, Johnson and Watters noticed the insecticidal coating on their seeds was visibly flaking off, so they sampled the seeds after they’d been rattling around in the planting hopper for 15 minutes to an hour. They later photographed a few seeds from every sample. The photos showed the seeds were losing a lot of their insecticidal coating before they went into the ground. Johnson and Watters included these photos in a November 2015 presentation to the Entomological Society of America and a contractually-required December 2015 presentation to CDRC stakeholders.

By January, the CDRC’s industry-affiliated stakeholders began to take intense interest. In emails from January through November of 2016, they asked Watters and Johnson for minute details about their research conditions, remarked that the seeds looked unusually bad, and suggested conducting more studies to replicate the phenomenon.

“I can’t explain the photos taken by OSU,” wrote David Fischer, the director of pollinator science for Bayer, prior to a July 2016 presentation of the Ohio State team’s preliminary results. “I’d like to know more about the seed treatment quality. … So much of the seed treatment has been eroded from these seeds I don’t see how any pest control efficacy could be achieved. In past studies, the amount of active ingredient removed from the seed is usually less than 2%. The seeds from the OSU study look to be 30% or more.”

While Fischer insisted the findings were an outlier, Watters defended his research and said the coating problems he observed were likely typical in the field, in an interview with U.S. Right to Know.

One important distinction is that most of the prior experiments Fischer referenced were conducted on small plots, Watters said.

“Frequently when we do corn trials in small plots we use a length of 17 feet 5 inches – because in a 30-inch row this is 1/1,000th of an acre. It makes calculations for yield very easy. I do not use this for most of my work because I feel it is too small to get world/reality check as to accuracy,” he said. “A typical farm field is 40, 80, 160 or perhaps 320 acres in size. My work was done in these typically sized farm fields.”

Furthermore, Johnson and Watters’ research was conducted on working farmers’ fields, using the coated seed the grower already planned to use for that field.

“The seed came off the typical commercial lots sold to farmers,” Watters said. “So hybrid, company of origin, maturity, etc. would have been at random – we made no prior plans on seed, only what field we were in and with what grower.”

Ultimately, Watters said they observed degraded seed coatings at random throughout the study.

“Our observations were totally random and as a conclusion I would expect similar seed coat breakage to happen everywhere,” he said.

At least one stakeholder on the conference calls told Watters and Johnson that getting seed treatments to stick to corn seeds is difficult as a rule, Watters said.

“This was apparently not unexpected for at least that one person.”

“I think there was an understanding that this is probably a component of the problem: the quality of the coating maybe was not as good as the seed casing they were producing in their own facilities,” Johnson said, referencing an American Seed Trade Association top lobbyist asking about how the seeds had been stored and under what circumstances they’d been purchased. But he said he believed the scrutiny was coming from industry affiliates’ interest in identifying what to fix. “I think they genuinely wanted to solve this problem,” he said.

“The recollection I have is they couldn’t believe that there were actually flakes of the seed coating coming off of the seed,” Watters said when asked about the emailed exchanges. “The seed coats did crack. We collected material in the field, we had sticky traps… there were chunks of the seed coat that were coming off as the seed was being planted.”

Although he engaged with the questions from the industry stakeholders, Watters said he remained firm in his testimony.

“I’m comfortable with the remarks I made with them that these were the results I saw,” he said.

Watters also found a 2013 review from Belgium that documented similar seed coat loss. He wrote to Johnson in August 2016 that “apparently it is not unheard of… and should not be a surprise.”

Bayer’s David Fischer asks for changes in the report

In advance of a conference call with other research stakeholders in July 2016, Bayer’s Fischer wrote to the group:

“Bayer has very significant concerns about the inclusion in the CDRC report of the photographs of seeds with severely eroded seed coatings that are shown in Fig 10 of the report from Ohio State University, especially the photo characterized as “typical” example of what seeds look like after passing through a planter. Many BCS [Bayer Crop Science] personnel have seen these photos and consider them completely atypical of anything they’ve seen in their experience.”

Fischer went on to say that Bayer’s internal studies yielded very different results, where the coating stayed on nearly perfectly after passing through a planter. Fischer then asked for further studies and interpretations on the matter.

The CDRC final report indicates which seed companies sold the seeds used in Johnson and Watters’ study (Beck’s, Dekalb/Monsanto, Master’s Choice and Stewart’s) but no information explicitly named which seed coating manufacturer’s product was on those seeds. Although three seed coating manufacturers were represented in the CDRC’s stakeholder group (Syngenta, BASF, and Bayer), Bayer’s David Fischer dominates the communications obtained by USRTK.

After the meeting, Fischer sent Johnson several pages of comments in which he asked for Johnson to remove the photos, and asked him to qualify several statements pertaining to bee health.

Despite this, conclusions remained unchanged between the June 2016 draft that Fischer commented on and the final report, aside from one statement that Johnson added to qualify the observed uptick in bee deaths: “The increase in adult mortality, however, would not be expected based on the concentrations of seed treatment insecticide measured in bulk pollen samples.”

In other words, it clarified that pesticide concentrations in the pollen were too low to adequately explain the bee deaths they observed.

“The insecticide was probably not evenly distributed throughout the pollen,” Johnson explained, referring to it as “the toxic chocolate chip cookie hypothesis.”

“There were these little chunks of the seed treatments and if the bee got that chunk, it was gonna die. But overall, the concentration, if you averaged it all together, was still below the level that was expected to kill bees,” he said in an interview with U.S. Right to Know.

Although Fisher’s requests appeared to elicit little change in the report, he asked for many changes: With regards to the flaky seed coatings, he called for a dedicated study to determine whether OSU’s seeds met industry standards, but noted that might be impossible for the specific batch of seeds that had been used in Johnson’s study.

“So the quality of the seed treatment of the seeds used in the OSU study is an uncertainty. Given this uncertainty, I would suggest that the photographs of abraded seeds be removed from the report, or at least a clear statement made that indicates the quality of the treatment of these seeds is unknown,” Fischer wrote. “Figure 10, showing the photos of seeds with a large amount of the seed treatment eroded as a result of planter abrasion is problematic. There are no data backing up the statement that the photo on the left represents a typical seed after passing through a planter. Also, the amount of a.i. [active ingredient] remaining on the seed hasn’t been determined. These photos have the potential to mislead the reader regarding the amount of a.i. lost due to dust abrasion. These photos should be deleted from the report.”

Fischer further suggested qualifiers and changes to the report, such as removing the word “elevated” from “[neonic] residues are reliably detected at elevated levels (8 ppb above background on average).” This suggestion was ignored.

Fischer also suggested that Johnson contextualize the neonicotinoid levels he found in pollen that bees had collected by discussing their risk to bee health. He provided several paragraphs of analysis and a diagram to that extent.

“The residue levels measured DO NOT indicate any appreciable risk to honey bees, and DO NOT explain the acute mortality observed in the study.  The above analysis should be included in the report. Without it, the reader might mistakenly think that the residue measurements DO explain the mortality observed.” (Emphasis Fischer’s.) This appears to be the one area where Johnson et al added a sentence to emphasize the above fact, although Fischer’s diagram was not included in the final report.

Fischer also wrote to Johnson about the bee deaths documented in the research.

“It is important that the CDRC report emphasizes that the level of mortality documented in this study was low, and had no observed effect on colony development or viability.” he said.

Fischer went on to tell Johnson that one of his conclusions, that removing flowering weeds is unlikely to reduce pesticide exposure to bees, “needs to be considered speculative, because the risk to bees was very low regardless of the landscape conditions in this study.” This was ignored in Johnson’s section of the final report.

Fischer also told Johnson that “the number of trials is too few to draw the definitive conclusions” his lab made about the relative efficacy of Bayer’s seed planting lubricant.

Johnson responded to Fischer’s comments in an email to Pollinator Partnership staff two days later.

“Clearly, the photos of seeds have struck a nerve. I’d be very reluctant to remove the photos entirely, but I think David Fischer does have valid concerns,” he wrote.

When asked in an interview about what Fischer asked him to do, Johnson said he thought Fischer didn’t want the pictures to be highlighted in the report.

“I pushed back,” Johnson said, because he believed the degraded seed coatings could be an important factor in the questions the CDRC sought to answer. However, Johnson acknowledged that he didn’t know much about coated seeds, and Fischer’s concerns seemed valid if the seeds he’d photographed had been a fluke. He largely disregarded Fischer’s suggested edits, though, besides adding the line about how the average insecticide levels were lower than lethal in the pollen samples.

“I think we were happy with the conclusions we had come to. I guess we disagreed with what David Fischer had suggested,” he said, “except on that one point.”

Did Johnson think this exchange was an overstep on Fischer’s part?

“I think that was his role to play in this group, and he did it,” Johnson said.

When asked whether he thought several stakeholders’ commercial interests in coated seeds affected the discussion of his study results, Johnson said he thought their presence was productive.

“It was interesting because they definitely came at this with their point of view, which was expected,” he said.

They were engaged on the conference calls and there was sometimes genuine disagreement, he said, about things like the efficacy of the lubricants, the mechanism of bee exposure to neonics, and whether weed control was a good approach to mediate the effects of seed treatment dust.

But the group was well-mediated, and it was “really exciting” to be on calls with the very people who had the ability to make changes and solve the problem, he said.

“In many ways they’re the prime audience for this research. I felt the discussions were quite productive. I always had it in my mind they were coming at it with their point of view,” he said, adding that he freely presented the study’s results to many audiences, and the chapter he submitted to the CDRC final report was published with all data and conclusions intact.

Funder/researcher interactions consistent with funding contracts

The funding contracts Johnson signed in 2014 and 2015 specify an obligation to share results with the funders before publication. “The Corn Dust Research Consortium has been formed to review proposals and oversee the project execution, including review and comment on study protocols, draft reports and presentation materials prior to their execution and public release. Final decisions on technical interpretation of the study findings and content of study reports, publications and presentations will be made by study personnel,” read the CDRC request for proposals. Both contracts Johnson signed contained provisions that all press releases and release of research results must be pre-approved by the Pollinator Partnership. Furthermore, “Research data is not to be released outside of the CDRC group without an agreed upon date between P2 [Pollinator Partnership] and the principal investigator,” the contracts read, with a suggested date soon after that of each contract’s expiration.

The contracts explicitly encouraged “photography or videography documentation from the onset of methods, experimental plots locations and in field activity for use in explaining the methodology and illustrating observations.”

“That was one of the expectations going into this project… they said they would let us publish whatever we wanted,” Johnson said. When asked about the contract’s pre-approval clause, he said that only factored in during the length of the contract. “They were actively encouraging us to publish our results,” he said.

Dr. Quinn Grundy is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, who studies corporate influence in health and health research. She said elements of this situation at Ohio State are “really familiar” to what she sees in the medically-related industries.

Overall, the CDRC contract “sounds pretty standard” to Grundy:  “I think, in most cases, sponsors ask for updates or the ability to comment or to approve publication,” she said.

However, the clause in the CDRC contract requiring  pre-approval of press releases isn’t ideal: “It definitely raises red flags for me, and I think in an ideal world the sponsor would have no role in approving the output of sponsored research, but unfortunately I think it’s pretty common. Usually the clause is something like the sponsor has the right to see, but can’t block publication or overrule the researchers, in the decision to publish,” she said.

It’s “so important” that contracts explicitly state a researcher’s ability to publish their research regardless of the results, Grundy said, particularly for early career scientists.

Grundy also noted that the CDRC is one instance of many where corporations have obscured their research contributions by providing them through a foundation or trade organization. Such entities might have “innocuous and nice sounding names,” Grundy said, but are “actually representing the pooled contributions of several commercial or corporate entities with an interest in shaping the direction of a research agenda.”

It can be hard for an average reader to identify conflicts of interest in a system that relies on voluntary disclosures from researchers, Grundy said. Structural or policy interventions might be necessary to eliminate bias or funder influence.  “It sounds like [Johnson and Watters] in fact did the right thing, but could have benefited from more supports to ensure the independence and integrity of their work which… has some pretty powerful implications for not only bees, but all of us that depend on bees,” she said.

One beekeeper stakeholder’s perspective on chemical industry influence

Iowa Beekeeper Manley Bigalk was appointed a CDRC stakeholder on behalf of the American Beekeeping Federation, a beekeeping industry interest group. He said that the chemical company stakeholders contributed more funds and had a more central role in discussions.

“So I was a stakeholder for, I forget what was pledged, $300 or $700 or something like that. Well, the companies were in there for hundreds of thousands because they were sponsoring the tests,” Bigalk said.

“A chemical company running grants to find out if their chemicals are active? Might be a little bit of a conflict of interest there. But a lot of the research today is funded by these people even at the universities,” he said. “And they have the money.” Bigalk spoke about the way he saw the main sponsors, the chemical company stakeholders, attempt to shape the scope of the study and the content of the report. “There never was a full admission there was dust in the air, to tell you the truth,” he said. Bigalk also noted they left certain critical details out of the CDRC’s final report. “Wouldn’t you think,” he said, if the study sought to address beekeeper complaints about toxic corn dust, “ …that you would have some evidence of things that now have been corrected? Or evidence that it does kill bees? Wouldn’t you think?”

Although Bigalk saw the project through from start to finish, another beekeeping interest group representative grew so disheartened with the CDRC that he dropped out of the partnership. Randy Verhoek attended a couple meetings on behalf of the American Honey Producers Association, but dropped out after hearing the group arrive at conclusions he didn’t agree with,  American Honey Producers Association president Chris Hiatt confirmed.

“It was really a strange experience. And for more ways than one,” Bigalk said. In one of the very first stakeholder meetings, Bigalk said he suggested the seed coating dust could be remediated with a different polymer that would stick better to corn seed. “That comment was made and there was no response and they went on to something else,” he said. That surprised him, he said, since a small chemical vendor had readily mentioned the coating problem to Bigalk previously.

Johnson’s team stands their ground

Several days after Johnson responded to Fischer’s feedback, Pollinator Partnership personnel scheduled a phone conversation with Johnson, then convened another conference call in November specifically to talk about the seed coating issue.

During that call, minutes obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Fischer said that “chunks coming off seeds do not affect the bees as much as the pollen-sized seed coating that comes off,” to which then-Pollinator Partnership Executive Director Laurie Davies Adams responded that big chunks of insecticidal coating could still affect the water quality on the site.

Meeting minutes show one seed company representative, Beck’s Hybrids manager Jim Herr, suggested throwing out the worst-looking photo. “In trying to understand how this could have happened, it seems that this one photo (picture 2. B-F) was an extreme scenario so it may not be the best to include in a report.”

The CDRC final report included 14 photos of the degraded seeds, including the contested “extreme” photo mentioned above.

“All examined corn seeds showed signs of seed treatment degradation, varying in severity,” the report reads. The photo caption says that “seeds varied in the perceived integrity of the coating, but most showed signs [of] particle generation. In an extreme case, we found one seed that had almost no coating left on it (B2), though this was the only example we noticed of such extensive degradation.”

In an early November email exchange, Watters and Johnson expressed their “exhaustion” on the topic to one another.

“However I get the sense there may be some appetite for funding additional research? Hard to say,” Johnson wrote.

Ultimately, Johnson said that he didn’t conduct any of the further studies that had been suggested. “I would really have loved to follow up,” he said.

He described a study he wanted to do where he’d use a dust meter to measure the amount of coating flaking off of the seeds, but it was “actually quite difficult” to access the necessary equipment, the CDRC didn’t offer any further funding opportunities, and eventually, Johnson moved on.

“I’m a honey bee researcher, and I finally made the decision that this is really getting too far afield,” he said.

Other issues with the final CDRC report

Starting in January 2017, the Pollinator Partnership circulated a draft of their final report, which was meant to summarize the study results and make final recommendations for mitigating planter dust contamination. Members of Johnson’s lab internally expressed disdain for the long list of recommendations to farmers, beekeepers, pesticide and equipment manufacturers, seed dealers, regulators, and educators. They were particularly irked that the report made recommendations to beekeepers, whose practices were not the focus of the study.

“I’m genuinely offended that the farmers and beekeepers are the first groups to be addressed, as though they bear the primary responsibility for this issue,” a lab member whose name was redacted told Johnson when he asked them what they thought of the conclusions.

When submitting comments on the report’s final draft in April, Johnson wrote, “I don’t recall anyone doing research on supplemental feeding or providing water or placement of hives around a field. I realize this leaves you with no bolded recommendations for beekeepers, but generating recommendations for beekeepers really wasn’t a focus of the research,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, the CDRC’s final report featured bolded recommendations for beekeepers.

Furthermore, the report’s overall conclusions recommended that farmers remove flowering vegetation within fields “through tillage, mowing or use of herbicides where appropriate” prior to planting, despite Johnson’s chapter recommending against that. Johnson said he believes some of the above discrepancies came from the fact that, although the 2017 report only contained the final year of each university team’s research data, the report’s overall conclusions attempted to synthesize three years of sometimes conflicting conclusions made by the different university research groups.

Johnson believes that Pollinator Partnership staff drafted the overall conclusions. Pollinator Partnership did not respond to a request to confirm this.

The aftermath

“My conclusion is that, at the end of this project our major conclusion was that it was really a quality control issue… and the seed treatment wasn’t adhering well to the seed,” Johnson said.

He said he believes that the seed coating formulation changed in the years since his study.

“I don’t get any calls about bees dying during corn planting anymore,” he said, compared to many calls in 2012 and 2013, and he detects lower insecticide concentrations in pollen during planting season nowadays. “It seems that this problem has been solved one way or another,” he said. “I think [the research] reached an audience who needed to see it.”

“I still don’t…like these insecticidal seed treatments, for a whole variety of reasons,” Johnson said. “The bee issues are just one of them. The fact that they’re not really very effective at pest control is another major issue here. But they do seem to have solved it causing mass bee kills from dust off like it did in these years.”

The CDRC research did not signify the end of neonic contamination issues, however, Bigalk said.

“They made the steps to research the corn dust situation. But in many ways, it just stopped short of showing the full toxic effect of neonics on what we call beneficial insects,” he said, or on aquatic organisms.

Bigalk said he believes the participating chemical companies corrected the flaky seed coating formula, as Johnson suspects. He also believes that mechanical dust control kits, which farmers can attach to corn planters, have helped to reduce dust since the CDRC was formed.

“We have controlled a great amount of that dust,” he said.

Although Bigalk had a large bee kill prior to the formation of the CDRC, he hasn’t had anything like it in the years since, he said. But he said problems from the “abuse of chemicals” persist.

“But with the things affecting honey bees today during the summer months and into the winter, we don’t have outright kills…. we’ve got this invisible negative influence that are coming into the hive and are just disrupting many, many things. And it’s a subtle thing,” Bigalk said, which might manifest in a colony’s queen dying or never returning to the hive after going out to mate.  “My word, there’s such a dramatic change in colony health today compared to what it was 30 years ago. 40 years ago,” he said. Although parasitic Varroa and tracheal mites hurt colony health, Bigalk said they’re not the only bee stressor at play.  “There are beekeepers out there without any elevated number of Varroa mites that are suffering greatly. It’s invisible…. Invisible negative influences from abuse of chemicals,” he said.

Just last year, Nebraska regulators closed down the AltEn LLC ethanol plant after the neonic coatings on the seeds the plant processed caused widespread environmental contamination.

Bigalk is a farmer as well as a beekeeper. He said he’s aware that neonicotinoids are applied to far more acres than actually need treatment.

“It’s abusive use,” he said.

However, he still allows them to be applied on his own land, in part to make things less complicated for his neighbors, since their fields are planted with the same equipment.

“I would surely prefer not having it on, but it doesn’t work out that well when you’re in a custom [planting] situation,” he said.

The Pollinator Partnership did not respond to requests for comment on this story. A Bayer representative informed USRTK that David Fischer has retired. The representative did not respond to requests for comment.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the documents for this report through an Ohio Public Records Act request to Ohio State University, and by asking Dr. Johnson directly for certain additional communications.

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