Activist groups claims scientists are being silenced and harassed; new petition calls for resignations
By Bob Berwyn
A broad coalition of food safety, consumer, and environmental groups is pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to come clean on its research into the environmental impacts of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides.
According to a petition being delivered to the USDA on March 10, high-level officials in the USDA have been censoring their agency’s own scientific reports when the findings don’t align with the interests of the pesticide industry. The groups also say the USDA is silencing and harassing scientists who are warning of the dangers of neonicotinoids.The petition drive started after a senior USDA scientist filed a whistleblower complaint. Research by Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, a USDA entomologist, suggests that neonicotinoid insecticides adversely affect pollinators, and that industrialized agriculture practices, such as the use of genetically modified crops, harm soils and beneficial insects.
In Aug. 2015, Lundgren was suspended by the agency after submitting a paper showing how a widely used pesticide affects monarch butterflies. In a timeline on the whistleblower complaint, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility explains how the actions against Lundgren appear to follow a pattern of harassment.
Even worse, Lundgren’s whistleblower complaint was rejected by a USDA review panel that claimed the agency has a right to prevent scientists from speaking with the media and the public.
“This review confirms that what occurs inside USDA does not resemble what anyone else would consider ‘scientific integrity,’” said PEER director Jeff Ruch. “Inside USDA, politics determines what scientific work will see the light of day.”
In their petition, the coalition of citizen groups characterized the issue like this:
“In particular, scientists whose work has touched on issues related to neonicotinoid insecticides and glyphosate are reporting a pattern and practice of harassment, censorship, and suppression. Just last month, we were pleased to see that USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong said the USDA will open a broad investigation into this issue2, but we were surprised to also see that your agency rejected a complaint by one of its top entomologists regarding scientific suppression.”
Fong said the investigation was launched based on a “significant volume” of complaints by agency scientists about censorship and interference with research on subjects that USDA upper management deemed sensitive.
“How will public confidence in the integrity of USDA science be enhanced when all of the reviews are kept secret?” said Ruch, explaining that a stated objective of the policy is to “ensure public confidence.”
Lundgren has authored several papers discussing the risks of emerging genetic modification techniques to non-target organisms and subsequently did a series of interviews on his research.
In March 2014, Lundgren reviewed a report that was critical of the overuse of certain insecticides, and that cited scientific literature and expert commentary to support claims that neonicotinoids had questionable economic value for farmers.
In his complaint, Lundgren says that, within a week of the interviews, “improper reprisal, interference and hindrance of my research and career began in earnest.”
Among the reprisals were restraints on media contacts, a misconduct investigation that interfered with his research. Lundgren described the process as one that “coerced and intimidated his research group, disrupted research plans and derailed my career trajectory.”
“Five of my eight term employees have had their employment threatened, hampered, or were dismissed unexpectedly since March 2014. I have never had problems of this nature or to this extent as I have since talking with the press in late March. See Attachment II for details of these actions.”
The USDA also interfered with Lundgren’s ability to travel to speak at international conferences on pesticides.
In advance of a trip to a European conference on food safety, senior USDA officials told Lundgren that he couldn’t speak freely about his research and that the slides for his presentation would have to be approved by numerous agency officials — none of whom had any expertise on the topic.
“Since late March, I have been subjected to a sudden but escalating pattern of impediments and disruption of my scientific work, restraints on my ability to communicate with scientific colleagues, as well as the media and a growing professional toll that is making further scientific work in ARS untenable.”