Pesticide companies have a problem. Their products kill; that’s what they’re designed for. So what happens when these deadly products end up killing more than they’re intended to? People get mad. Case in point is the plight of honey bee, now starkly linked to the indiscriminate use of a certain class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Used widely in both agriculture and backyards, these deadly pesticides have become a public relations nightmare for the companies that make them. Their solution? It’s not to pull the problematic pesticides from the market; rather, it’s to focus attention and company money on better PR.
Environmentalists and beekeepers have been sounding the alarm over neonicotinoids for several years now. Europe, in response to a growing body of scientific evidence and an increasingly informed and agitated public, recently voted for a two-year ban on three of the most harmful neonicotinoids as further study is conducted.
Opposition to neonicotinoids has been growing in the United States as well. This past month, a bill was introduced by Representatives Conyers (D-MI) and Blumenauer (D-OR) to incite similar action here as in the E.U. The bill calls for a suspension of several neonicotinoids until scientific review and field studies prove their safety to bees and other pollinators. This seems a reasonable approach, unless pesticides drive your bottom line.
Last week, Syngenta, the maker of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam, revealed its high level strategy for dealing with its product’s harmful consequences. It will spend more money on communications to boost the image of its products. More specifically, it will spend more money to sell the image that we as consumers can’t live without their products, even if that means continuing to threaten vital pollinators that are the backbone of agriculture.
Meanwhile, countries such as Italy, which has banned neonicotinoids in agriculture since 2008, provide clear evidence that we can in fact have a viable agricultural system without relying on bee-toxic chemicals. What we can’t do without are bees.
As the public becomes aware of the unintended damages caused by pesticides, they are demanding action, not placation. We are demanding precaution and forward thinking, not a blind adherence to the status quo simply because the alternative has been presented as too hard. In fact, viable alternatives to using toxic pesticides are available and effective. We have examples around the world of what we should be doing and we will be better served transitioning to sustainable practices rather than futilely clinging to a system we know is failing.
Pesticide companies will continue to trot out new campaigns to convince us otherwise. Monsanto held their Honey Bee Health Summit, and Bayer has been crisscrossing the country with their Bayer Bee Tour. Yet Monsanto’s seeds are coated with neonicotinoids created by the likes of Bayer, and if left to their own devices, that’s how it’s going to stay. No proactive steps to curb the harms of these chemicals, only spin and misdirection.
These same companies are employing similar tactics in another contentious and highly profitable arena: GMOs. While consumers are demanding greater transparency (a recent poll in New York showed a staggering 93% of respondents favor mandatory labeling of GMOs in food), industry responds with faux-transparency packaged neatly in a new “GMO Answers” website. Entirely funded by the agrichemical industry, it is a pandering attempt to assuage information-hungry consumers while deflecting from issues that necessitate genuine transparency and critique. Rising concern over GMOs among the general public has not been responded to with redress, only bigger and better PR pushing the same tired refrains.
One-sided, biased websites provide no more transparency than a Bayer branded bus does to save bees—but they do distract. Let’s hold them accountable for their products and make them answer the toughest questions: how can they continue to promote a product in the face of growing evidence showing direct and indirect harms? How can they push forward without pausing to acknowledge even one of the many serious questions being raised by scientists and consumers around the world? Consumers are waiting for real answers and progressive action, not more PR.