USDA Axes Webinars on Neonic Insecticide Risks
Topic Deemed “Not Appropriate” for Official and Outreach Education Programs
Washington, DC — Web-based training sessions about powerful new insecticides seeping into some of the continent’s most sensitive wetlands were cancelled by a senior U.S. Department of Agriculture official due to its subject matter, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER is characterizing the cancellation as another example of USDA interfering with the release of new science-based information about adverse effects flowing from neonicotinoid (“neonics”) pesticides. As a result, growing ecological risks posed by the most widely used insecticides in North America will likely not be considered in developing USDA policies, planning or management practices.
On June 2, 2014, a nationally advertised webinar entitled “Pesticides and Potholes: Understanding the Risks of Neonicotinoid Insecticides to Aquatic Ecosystems in Prairie Canada and Beyond” was nixed on orders from Wayne Honeycutt, Deputy Chief for Science and Technology for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). A companion webinar on the efficacy of neonicotinoid seed treatments and practices to minimize adverse impacts on pollinators and other non-target organisms was also scrubbed. The cancelled webinars were part of a series addressing priority training needs identified by NRCS and partner biologists. Without elaborating, Honeycutt declared in an email that “these topics were not appropriate for an NRCS sponsored webinar.”
Extending across the upper Midwest into southern Canada, the prairie potholes are one of the world’s most important wetland regions, home to more than half of North American migratory waterfowl. NRCS devotes considerable resources to wetland restoration in the region. Yet, drainage from surrounding cropland carries increasing amounts of ultra-potent neonics that threaten the health of the region’s aquatic systems.
“Neonics are apparently a taboo topic for USDA scientists to discuss,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to widespread complaints by USDA scientists of reprisal for research at odds with the agribusiness agenda. “This episode suggests political science essentially trumps biology, agronomy and every other discipline inside today’s USDA.”
By contrast with Honeycutt’s curt dismissal, NRCS conservation staff have been expressing the need for such training in internal emails:
- “…our field offices have a very poor understanding of some of these environmental impacts, and [I] agree that it has been a hole in our training.” While another said “It is not surprising that these compounds are turning up in prairie wetlands at concerning concentrations.”
- “The use of neonicotinoid insecticides has grown rapidly in recent years. These compounds are very toxic (one gram can kill 80,000 bees); the question is how mobile and long-lived they are. The answer to that question has implications for wetland food chains.”
- “I question whether NRCS is taking the right approach…the crop will drain into the wetland portion of the easement and the DC [District Conservationist] wasn’t able to envision the cascading ecological effects that may result.”
Honeycutt, an administrator with no expertise in wetlands, fish-wildlife, or pesticide management, did not feel the need to consult with his own or outside experts before forbidding training on the subject. Subsequently, Honeycutt set up a committee to vet all future training requests.
As one staff member remarked in an email “it appears that NRCS has glossed over this subject for some reason,” adding that “The wetlands guide or fact sheets do not mention pesticides.”