Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops

November 7, 2016

The controversy over genetically modified crops has long focused on largely unsubstantiated fears that they are unsafe to eat.

But an extensive examination by The New York Times indicates that the debate has missed a more basic problem — genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.

The promise of genetic modification was twofold: By making crops immune to the effects of weedkillers and inherently resistant to many pests, they would grow so robustly that they would become indispensable to feeding the world’s growing population, while also requiring fewer applications of sprayed pesticides.

Twenty years ago, Europe largely rejected genetic modification at the same time the United States and Canada were embracing it. Comparing results on the two continents, using independent data as well as academic and industry research, shows how the technology has fallen short of the promise.


Broken Promises of Genetically Modified Crops

About 20 years ago, the United States and Canada began introducing genetic modifications in agriculture. Europe did not embrace the technology. This is how it has played out.

OPEN Graphic

At the same time, herbicide use has increased in the United States, even as major crops like corn, soybeans and cotton have been converted to modified varieties. And the United States has fallen behind Europe’s biggest producer, France, in reducing the overall use of pesticides, which includes both herbicides and insecticides.

One measure, contained in data from the United States Geological Survey, shows the stark difference in the use of pesticides. Since genetically modified crops were introduced in the United States two decades ago for crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent.

By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage — 65 percent — and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 percent.

Profound differences over genetic engineering have split Americans and Europeans for decades. Although American protesters as far back as 1987 pulled up prototype potato plants, European anger at the idea of fooling with nature has been far more sustained. In the last few years, the March Against Monsanto has drawn thousands of protesters in cities like Paris and Basel, Switzerland, and opposition to G.M. foods is a foundation of the Green political movement. Still, Europeans eat those foods when they buy imports from the United States and elsewhere.

In Rowland, N.C., a worker loads G.M. corn seed into a planting machine on Bo Stone’s farm. Mr. Stone values genetic modifications to reduce his insecticide use. Credit Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

Fears about the harmful effects of eating G.M. foods have proved to be largely without scientific basis. The potential harm from pesticides, however, has drawn researchers’ attention. Pesticides are toxic by design — weaponized versions, like sarin, were developed in Nazi Germany — and have been linked to developmental delays and cancer.

“These chemicals are largely unknown,” said David Bellinger, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, whose research has attributed the loss of nearly 17 million I.Q. points among American children 5 years old and under to one class of insecticides. “We do natural experiments on a population,” he said, referring to exposure to chemicals in agriculture, “and wait until it shows up as bad.”

The industry is winning on both ends — because the same companies make and sell both the genetically modified plants and the poisons. Driven by these sales, the combined market capitalizations of Monsanto, the largest seed company, and Syngenta, the Swiss pesticide giant, have grown more than sixfold in the last decade and a half. The two companies are separately involved in merger agreements that would lift their new combined values to more than $100 billion each.

When presented with the findings, Robert T. Fraley, the chief technology officer at Monsanto, said The Times had cherry-picked its data to reflect poorly on the industry. “Every farmer is a smart businessperson, and a farmer is not going to pay for a technology if they don’t think it provides a major benefit,” he said. “Biotech tools have clearly driven yield increases enormously.”

Uncertain Harvest

Articles in this series examine the globe-spanning relationship of chemical companies, academics and regulators, and the powerful toxins and genetically modified seeds used to grow food in many parts of the world.

    Regarding the use of herbicides, in a statement, Monsanto said, “While overall herbicide use may be increasing in some areas where farmers are following best practices to manage emerging weed issues, farmers in other areas with different circumstances may have decreased or maintained their herbicide usage.”

    Genetically modified crops can sometimes be effective. Monsanto and others often cite the work of Matin Qaim, a researcher at Georg-August-University of Göttingen, Germany, including a meta-analysis of studies that he helped write finding significant yield gains from genetically modified crops. But in an interview and emails, Dr. Qaim said he saw significant effects mostly from insect-resistant varieties in the developing world, particularly in India.

    “Currently available G.M. crops would not lead to major yield gains in Europe,” he said. And regarding herbicide-resistant crops in general: “I don’t consider this to be the miracle type of technology that we couldn’t live without.”

    A Vow to Curb Chemicals

    First came the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994, which was supposed to stay fresh longer. The next year it was a small number of bug-resistant russet potatoes. And by 1996, major genetically modified crops were being planted in the United States.

    Monsanto, the most prominent champion of these new genetic traits, pitched them as a way to curb the use of its pesticides. “We’re certainly not encouraging farmers to use more chemicals,” a company executive told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. The next year, in a news release, the company said that its new gene for seeds, named Roundup Ready, “can reduce overall herbicide use.”

    Arnaud Rousseau holds non-G.M. corn seed, produced by Pioneer, a unit of DuPont. Credit Ed Alcock for The New York Times

    Figures from the United States Department of Agriculture show herbicide use skyrocketing in soybeans, a leading G.M. crop, growing by two and a half times in the last two decades, at a time when planted acreage of the crop grew by less than a third. Use in corn was trending downward even before the introduction of G.M. crops, but then nearly doubled from 2002 to 2010, before leveling off. Weed resistance problems in such crops have pushed overall usage up.

    To some, this outcome was predictable. The whole point of engineering bug-resistant plants “was to reduce insecticide use, and it did,” said Joseph Kovach, a retired Ohio State University researcher who studied the environmental risks of pesticides. But the goal of herbicide-resistant seeds was to “sell more product,” he said — more herbicide.

    Farmers with crops overcome by weeds, or a particular pest or disease, can understandably be G.M. evangelists. “It’s silly bordering on ridiculous to turn our backs on a technology that has so much to offer,” said Duane Grant, the chairman of the Amalgamated Sugar Company, a cooperative of more than 750 sugar beet farmers in the Northwest.

    He says crops resistant to Roundup, Monsanto’s most popular weedkiller, saved his cooperative.

    But weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup around the world — creating an opening for the industry to sell more seeds and more pesticides. The latest seeds have been engineered for resistance to two weedkillers, with resistance to as many as five planned. That will also make it easier for farmers battling resistant weeds to spray a widening array of poisons sold by the same companies.

    Growing resistance to Roundup is also reviving old, and contentious, chemicals. One is 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, the infamous Vietnam War defoliant. Its potential risks have long divided scientists and have alarmed advocacy groups.

    Another is dicamba. In Louisiana, Monsanto is spending nearly $1 billion to begin production of the chemical there. And even though Monsanto’s version is not yet approved for use, the company is already selling seeds that are resistant to it — leading to reports that some farmers are damaging neighbors’ crops by illegally spraying older versions of the toxin.

    High-Tech Kernels

    Bo Stone, a sixth-generation farmer, in Rowland, N.C. The seeds on Mr. Stone’s farm brim with genetically modified traits. Credit Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

    Two farmers, 4,000 miles apart, recently showed a visitor their corn seeds. The farmers, Bo Stone and Arnaud Rousseau, are sixth-generation tillers of the land. Both use seeds made by DuPont, the giant chemical company that is merging with Dow Chemical.

    To the naked eye, the seeds looked identical. Inside, the differences are profound.

    In Rowland, N.C., near the South Carolina border, Mr. Stone’s seeds brim with genetically modified traits. They contain Roundup Ready, a Monsanto-made trait resistant to Roundup, as well as a gene made by Bayer that makes crops impervious to a second herbicide. A trait called Herculex I was developed by Dow and Pioneer, now part of DuPont, and attacks the guts of insect larvae. So does YieldGard, made by Monsanto.

    Another big difference: the price tag. Mr. Rousseau’s seeds cost about $85 for a 50,000-seed bag. Mr. Stone spends roughly $153 for the same amount of biotech seeds.

    For farmers, doing without genetically modified crops is not a simple choice. Genetic traits are not sold à la carte.

    Two Corn Seeds, but Very Different

    Manufacturing the corn seed on the left involves gene modifications by three additional companies. The seed on the right is created using only conventional breeding methods.





    Pioneer                                                          Pioneer Seed brand

    (serial no. P8613)

    Seed brand                                                    (serial no. P1916)


                                                                          Coated with PPST 250 and DuPont Lumivia,

                                                                               an insecticide and fungicide.

    Also coated to protect the

    seed against soil-borne diseases and insects.

    $153   For about 50,000 seeds.

    Roundup Ready

    A gene resistant to Roundup, Monsanto’s main glyphosate-based herbicide.



    For about 50,000 seeds.


    A genetically modified trait that is harmful to some insects.


    A gene that makes crops impervious to another herbicide.

    Herculex I

    A genetic trait developed by Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer that breaks down the gut wall of insect larvae.

    Mr. Stone, 45, has a master’s degree in agriculture and listens to Prime Country radio in his Ford pickup. He has a test field where he tries out new seeds, looking for characteristics that he particularly values — like plants that stand well, without support.

    “I’m choosing on yield capabilities and plant characteristics more than I am on G.M.O. traits” like bug and poison resistance, he said, underscoring a crucial point: Yield is still driven by breeding plants to bring out desirable traits, as it has been for thousands of years.

    That said, Mr. Stone values genetic modifications to reduce his insecticide use (though he would welcome help with stink bugs, a troublesome pest for many farmers). And Roundup resistance in pigweed has emerged as a problem.

    “No G.M. trait for us is a silver bullet,” he said.

    By contrast, at Mr. Rousseau’s farm in Trocy-en-Multien, a village outside Paris, his corn has none of this engineering because the European Union bans most crops like these.

    “The door is closed,” says Mr. Rousseau, 42, who is vice president of one of France’s many agricultural unions. His 840-acre farm was a site of World War I carnage in the Battle of the Marne.

    As with Mr. Stone, Mr. Rousseau’s yields have been increasing, though they go up and down depending on the year. Farm technology has also been transformative. “My grandfather had horses and cattle for cropping,” Mr. Rousseau said. “I’ve got tractors with motors.”

    He wants access to the same technologies as his competitors across the Atlantic, and thinks G.M. crops could save time and money.

    “Seen from Europe, when you speak with American farmers or Canadian farmers, we’ve got the feeling that it’s easier,” Mr. Rousseau said. “Maybe it’s not right. I don’t know, but it’s our feeling.”

    Feeding the World

     Brazilian soybean plants at the end of their life cycle at Bayer’s research center in Durham, N.C. The plants have “stacked” traits, meaning they have been genetically modified for more than one specific trait, like bug resistance. Credit Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

    With the world’s population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, Monsanto has long held out its products as a way “to help meet the food demands of these added billions,” as it said in a 1995 statement. That remains an industry mantra.

    “It’s absolutely key that we keep innovating,” said Kurt Boudonck, who manages Bayer’s sprawling North Carolina greenhouses. “With the current production practices, we are not going to be able to feed that amount of people.”

    But a broad yield advantage has not emerged. The Times looked at regional data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, comparing main genetically modified crops in the United States and Canada with varieties grown in Western Europe, a grouping used by the agency that comprises seven nations, including the two largest agricultural producers, France and Germany.

    For rapeseed, a variant of which is used to produce canola oil, The Times compared Western Europe with Canada, the largest producer, over three decades, including a period well before the introduction of genetically modified crops.

    Despite rejecting genetically modified crops, Western Europe maintained a lead over Canada in yields. While that is partly because different varieties are grown in the two regions, the trend lines in the relative yields have not shifted in Canada’s favor since the introduction of G.M. crops, the data shows.

    Stink bugs raised by Bayer for experimental purposes at its research center in Morrisville, N.C. Credit Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

    For corn, The Times compared the United States with Western Europe. Over three decades, the trend lines between the two barely deviate. And sugar beets, a major source of sugar, have shown stronger yield growth recently in Western Europe than the United States, despite the dominance of genetically modified varieties over the last decade.

    Jack Heinemann, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, did a pioneering 2013 study comparing trans-Atlantic yield trends, using United Nations data. Western Europe, he said, “hasn’t been penalized in any way for not making genetic engineering one of its biotechnology choices.”

    Biotech executives suggested making narrower comparisons. Dr. Fraley of Monsanto highlighted data comparing yield growth in Nebraska and France, while an official at Bayer suggested Ohio and France. These comparisons can be favorable to the industry, while comparing other individual American states can be unfavorable.

    Michael Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said that while the industry had long said G.M.O.s would “save the world,” they still “haven’t found the mythical yield gene.”

    Few New Markets

    Battered by falling crop prices and consumer resistance that has made it hard to win over new markets, the agrochemical industry has been swept by buyouts. Bayer recently announced a deal to acquire Monsanto. And the state-owned China National Chemical Corporation has received American regulatory approval to acquire Syngenta, though Syngenta later warned the takeover could be delayed by scrutiny from European authorities.

    A research assistant at a Bayer center in North Carolina, where experiments are carried out to find new toxins to eradicate pests like stinkbugs, a problem at farms like Mr. Stone’s in Rowland. Credit Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

    The deals are aimed at creating giants even more adept at selling both seeds and chemicals. Already, a new generation of seeds is coming to market or in development. And they have grand titles. There is the Bayer Balance GT Soybean Performance System. Monsanto’s Genuity SmartStax RIB Complete corn. Dow’s PhytoGen with Enlist and WideStrike 3 Insect Protection.

    In industry jargon, they are “stacked” with many different genetically modified traits. And there are more to come. Monsanto has said that the corn seed of 2025 will have 14 traits and allow farmers to spray five different kinds of herbicide.

    Newer genetically modified crops claim to do many things, such as protecting against crop diseases and making food more nutritious. Some may be effective, some not. To the industry, shifting crucial crops like corn, soybeans, cotton and rapeseed almost entirely to genetically modified varieties in many parts of the world fulfills a genuine need. To critics, it is a marketing opportunity.

    G.M.O. acceptance is exceptionally low in Europe,” said Liam Condon, the head of Bayer’s crop science division, in an interview the day the Monsanto deal was announced. He added: “But there are many geographies around the world where the need is much higher and where G.M.O. is accepted. We will go where the market and the customers demand our technology.”

    Correction: November 2, 2016
    A chart on Sunday with the continuation of an article about the unmet promises of genetically modified crops misstated the mode of action of Herculex I, a genetic trait developed by Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer. It breaks down the gut wall of insect larvae; it does not create a bacterium that does so.

    FDA Finds Monsanto’s Weed Killer In U.S. Honey

    September 17, 2016

    The Food and Drug Administration, under public pressure to start testing samples of U.S. food for the presence of a pesticide that has been linked to cancer, has some early findings that are not so sweet.

    In examining honey samples from various locations in the United States, the FDA has found fresh evidence that residues of the weed killer called glyphosate can be pervasive – found even in a food that is not produced with the use of glyphosate. All of the samples the FDA tested in a recent examination contained glyphosate residues, and some of the honey showed residue levels double the limit allowed in the European Union, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. There is no legal tolerance level for glyphosate in honey in the United States.

    Glyphosate, which is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s Roundup herbicide, is the most widely used weed killer in the world, and concerns about glyphosate residues in food spiked after the World Health Organization in 2015 said its cancer experts determined glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Other international scientists have raised concerns about how heavy use of glyphosate is impacting human health and the environment.

    Records obtained from the FDA, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, detail a range of revelations about the federal government’s efforts to get a handle on these rising concerns. In addition to honey, the records show government residue experts discussing glyphosate found in soybean and wheat samples, “glyphosate controversies,” and the belief that there could be “a lot of violation for glyphosate” residues in U.S. crops.

    Even though the FDA annually examines foods for residues of many pesticides, it has skipped testing for glyphosate residues for decades. It was only in February of this year that the agency said it would start some glyphosate residues analysis. That came after many independent researchers started conducting their own testing and found glyphosate in an array of food products, including flour, cereal, and oatmeal. The government and Monsanto have maintained that any glyphosate residues in food would be minimal enough to be safe. But critics say without robust testing, glyphosate levels in food are not known. And they say that even trace amounts may be harmful because they are likely consumed so regularly in many foods.

    The residue issues are coming into the spotlight at the same time that the EPA is completing a risk assessment to determine if use of this top-selling herbicide should be limited. The agency has scheduled public meetings on the matter Oct. 18-21 in Washington. The EPA’s risk assessment report was initially due out in 2015, but still has not been finalized. The agency now says it will be completed in “spring 2017.”

    In the records released by the FDA, one internal email describes trouble locating honey that doesn’t contain glyphosate: “It is difficult to find blank honey that does not contain residue. I collect about 10 samples of honey in the market and they all contain glyphosate,” states an FDA researcher. Even “organic mountain honey” contained low concentrations of glyphosate, the FDA documents show.

    According to the FDA records, samples tested by FDA chemist Narong Chamkasem showed residue levels at 107 ppb in samples the FDA associated with Louisiana-based Carmichael’s Honey; 22 ppb in honey the FDA linked to Leighton’s Orange Blossom Honey in Florida and residues at 41 ppb in samples the FDA associated with Iowa-based Sue Bee Honey, which is marketed by a cooperative of American beekeepers as “pure, all-natural” and “America’s Honey.” Customers “can be assured that Sue Bee Honey is 100% pure, 100% all-natural and 100% American,” the Sioux Honey Association states.

    In a Jan. 8, 2016 email Chamkasem pointed out to fellow FDA scientists that the EU tolerance level is 50 ppb and there is no amount of glyphosate allowed at all in honey in the United States. But Chris Sack, an FDA chemist who oversees the agency’s pesticide residue testing, responded by reassuring Chamkasem and the others that the glyphosate residues discovered are only “technically a violation.”

    The bee farmers are not breaking any laws; rather glyphosate is being introduced by the bees,” Sack wrote in response. “While the presence of glyphosate in honey is technically a violation, it is not a safety issue.

    Sack said the EPA had been “made aware of the problem” and was expected to set tolerance levels for honey. Once tolerance levels are set by EPA – if they are set high enough – the residues would no longer be a violation. When contacted this week, the EPA said there are currently no pending requests to set tolerance levels for glyphosate in honey. But, the agency also said: “there is no dietary risk concern from exposure to glyphosate residues in honey at this time.”

    Sioux Honey Vice President Bill Huser said glyphosate is commonly used on farm fields frequented by bees, and the pesticide travels back with the bees to the hives where the honey is produced.

    “The industry doesn’t have any control over environmental impacts like this,” Huser said. Most of Sue Bee’s honey comes from bees located near clover and alfalfa in the upper Midwest, he said. Beekeepers located in the South would have honeybees close to cotton and soybean fields. Alfalfa, soybeans and cotton are all genetically engineered to be sprayed directly with glyphosate.

    The FDA results are not the first to find glyphosate in honey. Sampling done in early 2015 by the scientific research company Abraxis found glyphosate residues in 41 of 69 honey samples with glyphosate levels between 17 and 163 ppb, with the mean average being 64 ppb.

    Bee keepers say they are innocent victims who see their honey products contaminated simply because they might be located within a few miles of farms where glyphosate is used.

    “I don’t understand how I’m supposed to control the level of glyphosate in my honey when I’m not the one using Roundup,” one honey company operator said. “It’s all around me. It’s unfair.”

    The FDA did not respond to a question about the extent of its communications with Monsanto regarding residue testing, but the records released show that Monsanto has had at least some interaction with the FDA on this issue. In April of this year, Monsanto’s international regulatory affairs manager Amelia Jackson-Gheissari emailed FDA asking to set up a time to talk about “enforcement of residue levels in the USA, particularly glyphosate.”

    The FDA routinely looks for residues of a number of commonly used pesticides but not glyphosate. The look for glyphosate this year is considered a “special assignment” and came after the agency was criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2014 for failing to test for glyphosate.

    The FDA has not released formal results of its testing plans or the findings, but Sack made a presentation in June to the California Specialty Crops Council that said the agency was analyzing 300 samples of corn; 300 samples of soy; and 120 samples each of milk and eggs. He described some partial results achieved through April that showed glyphosate levels found in 52 samples of corn and 44 samples of soybeans but not above legally allowed levels. The presentation did not mention honey. The presentation also stated that glyphosate testing at the FDA will be expanded to “routine screening.”

    The USDA also will start testing for glyphosate, but not until next year, according to information the agency gave to the nonprofit group Beyond Pesticides in a meeting in Washington in January. Documents obtained through FOIA show a plan to test in syrups and oils in 2017.

    Soybeans and Wheat

    Like the FDA, the USDA has dragged its feet on testing. Only one time, in 2011, has the USDA tested for glyphosate residues despite the fact that the agency does widespread testing for residues of other less-used pesticides. In what the USDA called a “special project” the agency tested 300 soybean samples for glyphosate and found more than 90 percent – 271 of the samples – carried the weed killer residues. The agency said then that further testing for glyphosate was “not a high priority” because glyphosate is considered so safe. It also said that while residues levels in some samples came close to the very high levels of glyphosate “tolerance” established by EPA, they did not exceed those levels.

    Both the USDA and the FDA have long said it is too expensive and is unnecessary to test for glyphosate residues. Yet the division within the USDA known as the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) has been testing wheat for glyphosate residues for years because many foreign buyers have strong concerns about glyphosate residues. GIPSA’s testing is part of an “export cargo sampling program,” documents obtained from GIPSA show. Those tests showed glyphosate residues detected in more than 40 percent of hundreds of wheat samples examined in fiscal 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. The levels vary, the data shows. GIPSA has also been helping FDA access soybeans to test. In a May 2015 email, GIPSA chemist Gary Hinshaw told an FDA food safety official that “it isn’t difficult to find soybeans containing glyphosate.” In a December 7, 2015 email from FDA chemist Terry Councell to Lauren Robin, also a chemist and an FDA consumer safety officer, Councell said that glyphosate was present even in processed commodities, though “way below tolerance.”

    The fact that the government is aware of glyphosate residues in food, but has dragged its feet on testing for so long, frustrates many who are concerned about the pesticide.

    “There is no sense of urgency around these exposures that we live with day in and day out,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.

    Was a USDA scientist muzzled because of his bee research?

    March 6, 2016

    Jonathan Lundgren is buying a parcel of land — a scrubby, 30-acre plot just north of Brookings, S.D. —  from which he hopes to lead a revolution. An entomologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, based in a South Dakota lab, Lundgren plans to start two businesses: Blue Dasher Farm, a for-profit enterprise he describes as a model for sustainable farming; and Ecdysis, a nonprofit science lab for independent research.

    The land, rolling hillocks and flatlands alive with wildflowers and blooming weeds, includes a large house for his family and storage facilities he can convert into a lab. Even as this future beckons, however, his recent past still stings.

    U.S. agriculture, says Lundgren, is in crisis. A lack of diversity in farming and a related overreliance on pesticides have triggered a host of negative effects, including the decline of pollinators, such as butterflies and bees.

    Bees are vital to U.S. agriculture, pollinating foods that make up roughly a third, and the most nutritious portion, of our diet, such as fruits and leafy greens. But commercial beekeepers continue to report escalating losses of 42 percent or more, jeopardizing $30 billion in annual revenue and our health.

    A couple of years ago, the now 40-year-old Lundgren — running a government lab, winning awards from both his agency and President Barack Obama — occupied the right position to aid in this crisis. He says he was doing just that when the trouble started: a pair of suspensions — one for conduct unbecoming a federal employee and another for violating travel regulations.

    In October, Lundgren filed a whistleblower suit alleging that he was disciplined to suppress his science. The government says the suspensions had nothing to do with his research. Today, he is the most outspoken of several scientists who say they feel muzzled by the government.

    The lawyers who filed Lundgren’s suit allege that nine additional USDA scientists have been ordered to retract studies and water-down findings, or have faced discipline in retaliation for their work. They further allege that three of those scientists, beyond Lundgren, were also working on pollinator-related research. The USDA’s inspector general just announced an audit, to take place later this year, in response to the “significant volume” of complaints they’ve had on their office’s hotline, alleging scientific censorship on pesticides and other issues.

    This dynamic of government scientists claiming suppression extends across institutions. Just a few months ago, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration alleged that the House Science Committee, led by Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, was attempting to intimidate researchers who had produced data indicating that global warming hadn’t slowed.

    Such disputes show how complicated the intersection of government, science and industry can become when billions of dollars are at stake.

    Lundgren, a husband and father of two, is tall and slim, passing into middle age with a sparse beard and steady demeanor. A native of Lakeville, Minn., 25 miles south of Minneapolis, he remarks on his troubles with studied Midwest politeness. Where others might drop expletives, he says “holy buckets.”

    Close associates, however, say he bears a profound stubborn streak. “When Jon thinks he is right about something, he’ll dig in,” says his old doctoral adviser at the University of Illinois, Rob Wiedenmann. “He’ll shift when he finds that he is wrong, but you need to prove it to him.”

    As a USDA-ARS employee, Lundgren has run his own lab and staff for 11 years, wrote a well-regarded book on predator insects, published nearly 100 scientific papers and acted as a peer reviewer for dozens of publications. For years, his body of research was either neutral or favorable to farming policy and the chemical industry. But three years ago, he started cautioning against the overuse of pesticides. That shift, he says, triggered his suspensions and the downturn in his professional fate.

    He believes the problem began in 2012, when he published findings in the Journal of Pest Science suggesting that a popular class of pesticides called neonicotinoids don’t improve soybean yields. He also served as a peer reviewer for a Center for Food Safety report on the dangers of neonics. The next year, he published a paper suggesting that a new genetic pest treatment, dubbed RNAi pesticides, required a new means of risk assessment.

    The publications drew media interest, and after an interview with an NPR affiliate, Lundgren was brought into a conference call with his supervisor, Sharon Papiernik, and an area director above her, Larry Chandler.

    “You shouldn’t talk to the press anymore without prior approval,” Lundgren says Chandler told him. “We’re trying to protect you.”

    As a regulatory scientist, Lundgren believed that discussing his research was part of his job.

    Neither Papiernik nor Chandler responded to requests for interviews. A USDA spokesman said the agency would handle all responses. The spokesman said that Chandler doesn’t remember the conversation and that ARS scientists often receive guidance or approvals from supervisors and can present peer-reviewed research results but cannot speculate on policies.

    A few months later, in 2014, Lundgren gave an interview to Boulder Weekly. Within two weeks, he was the subject of a misconduct investigation over his office behavior. Lundgren was cited for dancing around the office and pretending to hump a chair. He allowed two employees with the same name to differentiate themselves by “AP” and “EP,” for “average penis” and “enormous penis.” He teased one employee about being so old she dated Napoleon. He was suspended for three days.

    He says he never felt anyone on his staff was uncomfortable or he’d have stopped. “I’d lay down in traffic for my employees, and they know that,” he says.

    After contacting all 11 of Lundgren’s then-staff members, as identified by staff members themselves, a complicated picture emerges. Eight requested anonymity, one spoke on the record and two declined to be interviewed — one invoking a nondisclosure agreement many staffers claimed they were asked to sign; the other saying, “If other staff members are talking to you, you’ll find out what you need to know.”

    Collectively, Lundgren’s staff members described the work environment as loose, sometimes juvenile, but said the whole group participated. They even collaborated on a letter to management decrying the investigation.

    Lundgren says he feared they might face reprisal and declined to pass the letter to his supervisors. But a former staff member supplied a copy, along with contemporaneous emails in support of it from the two staffers who declined to be interviewed. The letter states that “what management construed as behavioral misconduct” was “not offensive to those immediately involved.”

    USDA officials cannot speak on the record about personnel matters, but a spokesman said the investigation was conducted after management received a complaint from an employee in Lundgren’s lab and bore no connection to his interviews or research. The USDA spokesman also said there was no nondisclosure agreement.

    As a manager, Lundgren couldn’t be represented by the union, but his staff sought out Sheila Sears Wichmann, a now-retired ARS union rep, to guide them as witnesses. “I was a union rep for 35 years,” says Wichmann. “I’ve seen sexual harassers and serial harassers, the kind of things where even I — as the union rep — would think, ‘Go on and knock his block off.’ But this, was nothing.”

    Wichmann believes Lundgren was the real victim. “I don’t know why they did it,” she says, “but it seemed that they wanted to get him and were out to find some way of doing it.”

    Janet Fergen, retired after 30 years at ARS and 10 years as Lundgren’s lab manager, is the one former staff member who spoke on the record. She agrees with Lundgren’s assessment that something shifted after his soybean yield study.

    “There were questions from management about how the study was conducted,” she says. “That hadn’t happened before.”

    She also questions the timing of the USDA’s investigation, saying the incidents they asked about had occurred “many months earlier, so if it was so serious where was the urgency?”

    Lundgren says the tumult left him stunned. “At first, I couldn’t believe this was happening,” he says. “But as time went on, it seemed like anytime my work got media attention, they came after me.”

    It happened again, he says, when he submitted a paper to his supervisors early last year, describing how clothianidin — another form of neonic pesticide — harms monarch butterflies. Papiernik returned the paper, asking for minor revisions. Following standard USDA-ARS procedures, Lundgren says, he made the requested changes, then submitted the paper to a scientific journal for publication. He also supplied an interview on his as-yet-unpublished results to an NPR affiliate.

    Almost immediately, an ARS national program leader in pest management emailed him for more information and compared the paper to a different scientist’s discredited study. Two weeks later, Lundgren says, Papiernik came into his office “visibly angry,” questioning why he’d given the interview and telling him the paper wasn’t approved. Lundgren says he reminded her that she had reviewed the paper and requested only minor edits.

    A week later, in March last year, he was in trouble again. Lundgren says he was late filing a travel request before a trip to Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., to address a group of farmers and the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and forgot to sign the form. After his flight landed, Lundgren says he received a text from Papiernik advising him that his trip was not approved and declaring him AWOL. He was suspended for two weeks.

    “Dr. Lundgren failed to seek the necessary approvals for travel, thereby violating the agency’s guidelines,” a USDA spokesman said. “He submitted an unsigned request to accept contributed travel for that meeting on the day of his departure, leaving insufficient time to ensure the travel met ethical and other agency guidelines.”

    In his whistleblower complaint, Lundgren’s attorneys cite three USDA scientists who committed similar infractions without being disciplined (two took trips without having their paperwork countersigned; another filled out paperwork after the trip). A fourth scientist, Jian Duan, said in a phone interview that he forgot to fill out paperwork until after a trip but faced no penalty.

    After this, Lundgren says, he became the subject of his supervisors’ unrelenting focus: investigating his grants and his use of government vehicles, reviewing his slides for a presentation and even requiring him to retract his name from an article on the adverse consequences of increased U.S. corn production because it seemed to comment on policy.

    By this time, he says, he started thinking about his next steps.

    Lundgren, in fact, first tried working through the USDA’s standard procedures to get his career back on track. After his first suspension, he filed a scientific integrity complaint, according to USDA-ARS procedures, alleging that his research and attempts to communicate his findings to the media had been disrupted. The USDA rejected the complaint, and after an appeal, a five-member panel convened by the agency recently confirmed that decision.

    The internal report, deemed confidential by the USDA but released by Lundgren’s attorney, states that “the scientist’s written complaint did not provide credible and verifiable evidence that his research was impeded and that he was restrained from communicating with the media.”

    The report cites multiple instances in which Lundgren was allowed to publish research and give interviews or travel to present his findings.

    Jeff Ruch, the executive director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility who has been representing Lundgren, says the report reveals a systemic problem inside the agency: “No witnesses named by Lundgren were interviewed,” Ruch says. “The panel was told not to even consider allegations of reprisal. And they also repeated USDA’s position that they can prohibit any scientist from talking to the media even about already published research, which completely undermines any claim of scientific freedom.”

     A USDA spokesperson said: “The documents that this organization has released affirm that the referenced allegation of scientific misconduct at USDA is untrue and misleading. Both the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Agency scientific integrity officer and an independent USDA scientific integrity review panel have reviewed the allegation and found it to be unsubstantiated. The scientific integrity review panel has spoken, and we stand by their decision. We will have no further comment on this matter.”

    To this point, Lundgren stands largely alone in his dispute with the government. The nine other scientists cited by Lundgren’s attorneys choose to remain anonymous because they fear reprisal, according to Ruch, head of PEER, the alliance of scientists that is representing Lundgren.

    There are signs, however, that this could be changing. Data seems to be mounting suggesting that pesticides are a significant contributor to bee declines.

    A recent scientific literature review conducted by researchers in the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Italy determined that pesticide exposure renders bees more susceptible to disease and increases mortality rates. Pesticides have also been linked to harming bees’ memory and navigational capabilities.

    “No one would describe them as the driver,” says Lundgren, “but they are significant, and the government doesn’t seem to want to do anything about them.”

    Most of the attention has focused on neonicotinoids. Entering broad use here in the late ’90s, neonics’ global share of the pesticide marketplace ballooned by 2008 to roughly 25 percent and $2.5 billion. Neonics can be implanted directly on the seed and are classified as a “systemic” insecticide because they are fully incorporated into the plant’s tissue, remaining present in pollen and nectar.

    Two key studies have found that feeding neonics to bees, even in amounts so low they couldn’t be detected afterward, render them more susceptible to infection. The co-author of one of those studies, Jeffrey Pettis, is joining Lundgren in speaking out.

    Pettis is a highly respected entomologist and led the USDA’s bee laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, for nine years, through April 2014, when he testified before the House Agriculture Committee.

    Pettis had developed what he describes as a “significant” line of research showing that neonics compromise bee immunity. But in his opening remarks before Congress, he focused on the threat posed by the varroa mite, often put forward by chemical company representatives as the main culprit behind bee deaths.

    Only under questioning by subcommittee Chairman Austin Scott, R-Ga., did Pettis shift. Even if varroa were eliminated tomorrow, he told Scott, “we’d still have a problem.” Neonics raise pesticide concerns for bees “to a new level,” he said.

    About two months later, Pettis was demoted, losing all management responsibilities for the Beltsville lab.

    Dave Hackenberg, a central Pennsylvania beekeeper and longtime friend of Pettis’s, says Pettis confided in him that the official reason given for his demotion — poor performance as an administrator — wasn’t the real one. The real reason was his congressional testimony.

    Pettis, 61, has never provided a full public account of his side of the story. But with Hackenberg talking he decided to respond. “Dave and I talk a lot,” he said, “and I cannot be sure what I might have said to him around the time of my demotion.”

    But, Pettis said, the USDA’s congressional liaison told him that the Agriculture Committee wanted him to restrict his testimony to the varroa mite. “In my naivete,” he said, “I thought there were going to be other people addressing different parts of the pie. I felt used by the whole process, used by Congress.”

    The hearing was “heavily weighted toward industry,” he said, “and they tried to use me as a scientist, as a way of saying, ‘See, it’s the varroa mite,’ when that’s not how I see it.”

    As for his demotion, Pettis called himself a “bad administrator.” But did he think the hearing played a role?

    Pettis delivers an elliptical answer. He said he walked up to Scott afterward, to make small talk, and the congressman “said something about how I hadn’t ‘followed the script.’

    A spokeswoman for Scott said the congressman no longer chairs the same House agriculture subcommittee and referred questions to the committee’s professional staff. A spokesperson there declined to make anyone available for an interview.

    “In my gut,” said Pettis, “I feel I pissed someone off with my testimony. Beyond that I have not felt or seen the big hand of industry saying, ‘We’re going to make you pay for this.’ I have seen more direct evidence that Congress was influenced by industry than I ever felt with regard to the USDA.”

    A USDA spokesman said Pettis’s demotion was in no way linked to his research or testimony, and points to USDA studies on the varroa mite, sublethal pesticide effects and preserving genetic diversity as examples of “breakthrough studies” the agency has conducted.

    The dispute hit a new low for Lundgren in July, when he finished a draft of a new paper on RNAi pesticides.

    RNAi pesticides work by attaching a molecule to the target pest’s DNA, keeping specific, vital gene sequences from functioning.

    Lundgren and postdoc Chrissy Mogren used computer software to mimic the action of 21 such pesticides to determine if any threaten honeybees. What they discovered is that each pesticide might bind with some section of the honeybee’s DNA. Lundgren himself describes this result as not so dramatic as it sounds. The honeybee genome is vast, and any overlap between the pesticide and the bee’s genome might prove innocuous and unrelated to survival.

    Still, Lundgren thought of this research as a step to encourage further study. He also knew the data would likely spark more trouble with his bosses, so he sent the paper to seven colleagues for informal peer reviews. Five suggested relatively minor revisions, checking one of two boxes indicating the paper as “acceptable” for submission. Neil Hoffman and John Turner, both managers for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, referred to the paper as “trivial” and didn’t check a box.

    Hoffman and Turner said the paper offered no evidence of “meaningful” interactions between the pesticides and the honeybee genome. Lundgren’s supervisors made the same argument and refused him permission to submit the paper to an outside journal.

    “The whole process seemed tainted to me by then,” says Lundgren. “They were suppressing science. This was a ‘proof of concept’ paper” — a pointer to areas scientists might research further — “a standard part of science.”

    Greg Heck, Monsanto‘s weed control platform lead, with an expertise in RNAi technologies, believes Lundgren is too alarmist about the new technology and says Monsanto is conducting tests to make sure the pesticides are harmless to bees. But, hearing what the paper contains, he said he believes submitting it for publication was appropriate. “I haven’t seen the study, but I am a firm believer in getting research out there,” he said, “because then we can discuss the results and say, ‘Hey, is any of this truly meaningful?'”

    At this point, Lundgren started planning a lab outside USDA, with some of the people he calls his “professional family,” including a pair who worked with him when he was suspended for unbecoming conduct.

    He accompanied me to the site, a half-hour jaunt from his ranch home across the flatlands and open highways of Brookings. The farm, Blue Dasher, is named after Lundgren’s favorite dragonfly species. Ecdysis is the process of molting, when an insect sheds its skin and transforms, a period of great promise and vulnerability. The symbolism is entirely conscious.

    I don’t think science can be done, at least on this subject, in any of the conventional ways,” he says. “I think we need truly independent scientists — not funded by government or industry.”

    Bee declines, says Lundgren, are not difficult to understand. “Yes, the bees are in crisis, and we need to help them,” he says. “But what we have is not a bee problem. What we have is a biodiversity problem.”

    U.S. corporate agriculture tends toward monoculture farming — in the simplest terms, one giant farm specializing in one crop. The two key monoculture crops are corn and soybeans. Corn alone takes up 30 percent of the country’s crop space, an area almost the size of California.

    Soybean acreage is nearly as vast. The corn rootworm, the Colorado potato beetle and soybean aphids all thrive best on the crops that give them their names. And so monocultures have allowed, even caused, says Lundgren, pest populations to explode.

    “We’re using all of these pesticides because we’ve created a pest problem,” Lundgren says, “and bee health is a symptom of this underlying cause.”

    He says the solution is to diversify American farming. “Any other course is unsustainable,” he says. “Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides should be something we resort to, not a first option.”

    Lundgren says he will use Blue Dasher to prove farmers can produce high yields, big profits and enough food by rotating crops, which will suppress pest populations naturally.

    As he stands at the edge of what he hopes will be his new operations, the land spread out before him, he looks happy.

    “This,” he says, “is the future.”

    In November, when he accepted a civic courage award in Washington from the Shafeek Nader Trust for his stand against the USDA, he evoked the future as a talisman, a future in which bees and our food supply will no longer be under threat. This time, as if sensing skepticism, he goes on: “I really believe it,” he says. “We can do it through science.”