In 1985, Bayer patented a synthetic insecticide that soon showed up in its garden products. Imidacloprid belonged to a new class of chemicals, neonicotinoids, neonics for short. They block neural receptors, killing an insect or, with milder exposure, causing tremors, convulsion, an inability to fly, sterility, or a damaged immune system.
The intended target was sucking insects that devour crops, but there were enough bee deaths to worry the French government, which commissioned toxicologist Jean-Marc Bonmatin to investigate. He found neonics in everything relevant to the bees—sunflowers, water, soil . . . At the urging of concerned beekeepers and environmentalists, France banned neonicotinoids. Bayer sued the head of the National Union of Beekeepers for libel—but lost. Bonmatin told reporters that Bayer had come into his lab to check his research, and Bayer’s lawyer had sent a letter to him and to his institute. “They expected me, a scientist, to hide my results to protect Bayer’s sales!”
In 2004, Spanish toxicologist Francisco Sánchez-Bayo made a presentation warning of the dangers of neonics. He says a Bayer scientist attended and, after the presentation, tried to discourage him from publishing his results.
In 2008, a new pest showed up in Germany’s Rhine Valley. The German government authorized heavy use of neonics to save the corn harvest.
Beekeeper Christoph Koch watched as the farmers sowed the kernels of corn, coated bright red with insecticide. “From one moment to the next, the bees stopped flying,” he told DW, a German public broadcasting service. It was a clear, sunny day, and the air had been abuzz with foraging bees—and then they were gone. “All the bees in the air disappeared.”
Toxic dust from the neonic insecticide destroyed 12,000 bee colonies. More than 500 million bees died—not peacefully, but after seizures and paralysis. Koch could not bear to drive to the beehives: “Every time I got near, I was met by the stench of decomposing bees.” The bees who flew through the dust cloud died, but the dust then settled on plants, so more bees were exposed to contaminated pollen.
The problem was declared to be the mechanical seed planters. Bayer offered beekeepers financial compensation—provided they sign a contract waiving any future claims. Bayer continues to argue that, used right, neonics do not harm bees or other insects (and therefore do not harm the birds, reptiles, and amphibians that depend on them for sustenance).
Dutch toxicologist Henk Tennekes dug up a 1991 study by a Bayer scientist that described the “virtually irreversible” effects of neonicotinoids on the nervous system of a fly. But when he confronted Bayer, Bayer retracted the earlier finding and said the blocking of the receptors was reversible.
By 2013, neonics were the most widely used class of insecticides in the world.
In 2018, France banned them all, and the EU banned three of the five neonics in use there. There are currently seven neonics approved for use in the U.S., and they show up in a wide array of products, even flea and tick medicine for dogs. Maryland and Connecticut have banned the retail sale of neonic pesticides; Illinois has been trying to do so since 2016. The Obama administration banned use of neonics on National Wildlife Refuges, but the Trump administration reversed the decision. In 2020, the EPA proposed more careful commercial management of neonics, more use of PPE, and warnings to homeowners not to use them.
Neonics are now an integral part of agriculture, Bayer points out, used on 135 million acres every year—more than half of all planted acres. In the “Bee Care” section of Bayer’s U.S. website, the company claims that “there is little evidence that the registered uses are affecting colony health.” Wild bee population may be declining, the company says, but there the number of managed bee colonies is growing. The EPA has “now balanced pollinator protection with giving growers the flexibility to protect their crops.”
Since the development of neonics, U.S. agriculture has become forty-eight times more harmful to insect life, according to a 2020 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Eating just one neonic-treated seed is enough to kill some songbirds.” We now know that when crops are treated, the neonic spreads to the field margins where wild honeybees forage. Contamination has been found lingering in soil, refuge areas, in wildflowers, in food crops, in streams, in drinking water, and in the bodies of insects and aquatic and wetland invertebrates.
This is how it happens. A product appears that will make money. It is approved. It does damage. People concerned about the damage and its implications raise a fuss. By then, people are making real money, the product is entrenched, and the protests are unwelcome. Bans take a long time. The general public is left not knowing what to believe. Damage spreads, and some losses cannot be reversed.
Rachel Carson documented this pattern sixty years ago in Silent Spring. I saw the pattern repeat when I reported on early worries about the glyphosate in Roundup, an insecticide originally produced by Monsanto, which has since been acquired by Bayer. The jury is still out on glyphosate’s environmental or human dangers—the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer says it probably causes cancer, and the FDA says it does not. Commercial lab tests done early in the approval process were later found to be fraudulent. Many people have filed lawsuits accusing Bayer of not issuing a clear warning that glyphosate could be carcinogenic. Bayer agreed to pay roughly $9 billion to settle more than 100,000 of these lawsuits. And on it goes.
In our eagerness to pull profit from the ground, we keep taking chances. And paying the price.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.