Anyone who’s kept half an eye on environmental news the last few years knows that sudden honey bee hive die offs are becoming a serious issue and a crisis for pesticide manufacturers.
No one is certain why the bees — crucial for pollinating the nation’s nut, fruit, grain, legume and vegetable crops — seem healthy one month and die the next.
But some research seems to be pointing at a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids that may have a role. They are known as systemic pesticides, which may be inside a seed and expand as the plant does, making it immune to the particular pest from which the plant needs protection.
The idea is that as they build up in the plants the bees pollinate the chemicals return to the hive with the unwitting worker bees and at some point reach a toxicity that kills the hives.
The theories are pretty fascinating and seem logical, if inconclusive:
Older pesticides could kill bees and other beneficial insects. But while they quickly degraded — often in a matter of days — neonicotinoids persist for weeks and even months. Beekeepers worry that bees carry a summer’s worth of contaminated pollen to hives, where ensuing generations dine on a steady dose of pesticide that, eaten once or twice, might not be dangerous.
“Soybean fields or canola fields or sunflower fields, they all have this systemic insecticide,” Mr. Adee said. “If you have one shot of whiskey on Thanksgiving and one on the Fourth of July, it’s not going to make any difference. But if you have whiskey every night, 365 days a year, your liver’s gone. It’s the same thing.”
A group of beekeepers sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleging it approved this group of pesticides too quickly, before all the impacts were fully understood. That qualifies as an industry crisis.
But we’re not naturalists here and will leave the science to others. What’s worth looking at is how the pesticide industry is reacting to the laser beams dancing on its heart.
Really, pretty well and smart.
Research to date on neonicotinoids “supports the notion that the products are safe and are not contributing in any measurable way to pollinator health concerns,” the president of CropLife America, Jay Vroom, said Wednesday. The group represents more than 90 pesticide producers.
He said the group nevertheless supported further research. “We stand with science and will let science take the regulation of our products in whatever direction science will guide it,” Mr. Vroom said.
Consider some of the major environmental issues and even disasters of the last 30 years: DDT, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Times Beach, milk and food additives, and so on.
In every instance, industry’s first reaction was deny, deny, deny. No way. Wasn’t us. Has to be something else. Look the other way. Who? Us?! Nah.
Now, after taking its lumps and lawsuits, industry is doing its best — at least in this limited case — to be part of the solution. This won’t make organic farmers or organic shoppers rush to buy vegetables protected by neonicotinoids, but it might help the pesticide industry cast itself in a more credible way.
Why? Because in the end, we know that no one wants to poison the food supply or kill all the bees. We can infer from the industry’s indications that the companies want to figure this out as well, make adjustments if necessary and fix it.
Afterall, if pesticides kill the bees that pollinate the plants whose growers buy the pesticides, no one’s going to keep buying the pesticides.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.