Bayer has been in the spotlight for trying to avoid compensating people who became sick from using its Roundup weed killer, it seems the company is likewise to be complicit for trying to conceal risks associated with its insecticides. It wasn’t alone.
From U.S. Right to Know:
Agrichemical giant Bayer helped fund a study by university academics, then pressured them to omit photos that implicated a defective insecticide-treated seed product as a threat to bees, according to communications obtained by U.S. Right to Know.
Several seed and insecticide companies, including Bayer, paid Ohio State University researchers to determine how much their insecticide-coated seed products affected bees during corn planting season in 2014 and 2015. After the researchers presented their preliminary results to “stakeholders,” which included funders, a Bayer official asked that their final report exclude photos of insecticide-coated corn seeds in which the product appeared defective. He urged the researchers to qualify statements in the final report that discussed threats to bee health in ways that benefited Bayer’s corporate interests.
Emails show how an industry funder tried to control and spin researchers’ results.
Internal communications and research contracts are elements of sponsored research that are typically hidden from the public, but in this case, they provide insight into corporate sponsors’ involvement in the research process.
Although the photos and all the researchers’ conclusions ultimately made it to the final publication, internal emails show the seed and chemical industry funders intensely scrutinizing the researchers’ findings during pre-publication presentations. The study’s funding contract allowed funders to review and comment on findings prior to publication, and required pre-approval for any press releases or sharing of results.
Concerns about bee deaths
The main funders of this research were chemical companies that manufacture neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely-used insecticide. Neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, are often delivered to crops via a colorful coating on the seed. Neonics are systemic, which means the seed grows into a plant containing the insecticide throughout, so it kills any bug that bites it. Since they are insecticides, neonics are also toxic to bees and other beneficial pollinator insects.
The companies manufacturing neonics have been trying to shape the narrative about bees and insecticides for more than a decade, as concerns have grown about harm to bees.
In 2008, there was a major honey bee die-off in Germany that researchers traced back to the planting of neonic-coated seeds. The coatings were flaking off the seeds as tractors drove around in the fields towing corn planters, which are mechanical devices that plant corn seeds one at a time into the ground. The mechanical planting process churned up clouds of neonic-imbued dust that killed bees. Bayer said it was a bad batch of seed, and they released a paper the following year announcing they would retrain seed manufacturers, improve the coating ingredients, and develop dust-cutting modifications for planters. But a 2012 Purdue University paper listed neonic-contaminated dust from corn planters as a route of neonic exposure for bees. Canada was able to link bee deaths to corn and soybean planting events in 2012 and 2013.
The next year, the nonprofit Pollinator Partnership formed the Crop Dust Research Consortium (CDRC), which funded research to determine the best practices for minimizing honey bee exposure to seed dust. Its funders included companies such as Bayer, Syngenta, and BASF, all of which manufacture insecticidal seed coatings; trade groups with direct financial interests in neonic-coated seeds; and beekeeping and agricultural interest groups.
The CDRC said that its goal across all research objectives was to “produce peer-reviewed published papers to advance the understanding of the issue through open and transparent oversight.” Its material explicitly said the research was not intended as an endorsement of seed treatment, neonics, or any other specific practice. One of its objectives was to test a new lubricant Bayer developed that was intended to contain the coatings better than existing lubricants.
In 2014, the CDRC granted $157,224 to Dr. Reed Johnson and agronomist Harold Watters of Ohio State University. The researchers were to characterize bee visits to flowers around cornfields during spring planting to figure out how to reduce pesticide exposure during those visits, and to test how well various seed lubricants reduced dust. In 2015, CDRC granted the lab an additional $145,000 to continue the research. In addition, the researchers were to investigate the long-term health consequences of bee colonies exposed to insecticide-contaminated dust from corn planters, and the efficacy of the CDRC’s recommendations in preventing bee exposure to planter dust. Researchers in Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, and Ontario also received funding.
Johnson and Watters determined there was very little difference in the amount of neonic dust generated by different kinds of corn planters, and that Bayer’s new lubricant didn’t outperform the other lubricants. This conclusion was published in the CDRC final report in 2017. Johnson and Watters also documented higher neonic levels in bee-collected pollen, and an uptick in bee deaths during corn planting season. However, they didn’t find evidence that the contaminated pollen killed the bees (bees could have died by direct exposure to the planter dust) and the neonic exposures didn’t appear to impact longer-term colony strength or overwintering success. They published these conclusions in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in 2020, in addition to the CDRC final report.
The conversations leading up to publication show that, although the researchers ultimately published all their findings, they first had to respond to funders who had a financial interest in the results as they reviewed and suggested changes to their report.
The flaky seed coating ordeal
During corn planting, Johnson and Watters noticed the insecticidal coating on their seeds was visibly flaking off, so they sampled the seeds after they’d been rattling around in the planting hopper for 15 minutes to an hour. They later photographed a few seeds from every sample. The photos showed the seeds were losing a lot of their insecticidal coating before they went into the ground. Johnson and Watters included these photos in a November 2015 presentation to the Entomological Society of America and a contractually-required December 2015 presentation to CDRC stakeholders.
By January, the CDRC’s industry-affiliated stakeholders began to take intense interest. In emails from January through November of 2016, they asked Watters and Johnson for minute details about their research conditions, remarked that the seeds looked unusually bad, and suggested conducting more studies to replicate the phenomenon.
“I can’t explain the photos taken by OSU,” wrote David Fischer, the director of pollinator science for Bayer, prior to a July 2016 presentation of the Ohio State team’s preliminary results. “I’d like to know more about the seed treatment quality. … So much of the seed treatment has been eroded from these seeds I don’t see how any pest control efficacy could be achieved. In past studies, the amount of active ingredient removed from the seed is usually less than 2%. The seeds from the OSU study look to be 30% or more.”
While Fischer insisted the findings were an outlier, Watters defended his research and said the coating problems he observed were likely typical in the field, in an interview with U.S. Right to Know.
One important distinction is that most of the prior experiments Fischer referenced were conducted on small plots, Watters said.
“Frequently when we do corn trials in small plots we use a length of 17 feet 5 inches – because in a 30-inch row this is 1/1,000th of an acre. It makes calculations for yield very easy. I do not use this for most of my work because I feel it is too small to get world/reality check as to accuracy,” he said. “A typical farm field is 40, 80, 160 or perhaps 320 acres in size. My work was done in these typically sized farm fields.”
Furthermore, Johnson and Watters’ research was conducted on working farmers’ fields, using the coated seed the grower already planned to use for that field.
“The seed came off the typical commercial lots sold to farmers,” Watters said. “So hybrid, company of origin, maturity, etc. would have been at random – we made no prior plans on seed, only what field we were in and with what grower.”
Ultimately, Watters said they observed degraded seed coatings at random throughout the study.
“Our observations were totally random and as a conclusion I would expect similar seed coat breakage to happen everywhere,” he said.
At least one stakeholder on the conference calls told Watters and Johnson that getting seed treatments to stick to corn seeds is difficult as a rule, Watters said.
“This was apparently not unexpected for at least that one person.”
“I think there was an understanding that this is probably a component of the problem: the quality of the coating maybe was not as good as the seed casing they were producing in their own facilities,” Johnson said, referencing an American Seed Trade Association top lobbyist asking about how the seeds had been stored and under what circumstances they’d been purchased. But he said he believed the scrutiny was coming from industry affiliates’ interest in identifying what to fix. “I think they genuinely wanted to solve this problem,” he said.
“The recollection I have is they couldn’t believe that there were actually flakes of the seed coating coming off of the seed,” Watters said when asked about the emailed exchanges. “The seed coats did crack. We collected material in the field, we had sticky traps… there were chunks of the seed coat that were coming off as the seed was being planted.”
Although he engaged with the questions from the industry stakeholders, Watters said he remained firm in his testimony.
“I’m comfortable with the remarks I made with them that these were the results I saw,” he said.
Watters also found a 2013 review from Belgium that documented similar seed coat loss. He wrote to Johnson in August 2016 that “apparently it is not unheard of… and should not be a surprise.”
Bayer’s David Fischer asks for changes in the report
In advance of a conference call with other research stakeholders in July 2016, Bayer’s Fischer wrote to the group:
“Bayer has very significant concerns about the inclusion in the CDRC report of the photographs of seeds with severely eroded seed coatings that are shown in Fig 10 of the report from Ohio State University, especially the photo characterized as “typical” example of what seeds look like after passing through a planter. Many BCS [Bayer Crop Science] personnel have seen these photos and consider them completely atypical of anything they’ve seen in their experience.”
Fischer went on to say that Bayer’s internal studies yielded very different results, where the coating stayed on nearly perfectly after passing through a planter. Fischer then asked for further studies and interpretations on the matter.
The CDRC final report indicates which seed companies sold the seeds used in Johnson and Watters’ study (Beck’s, Dekalb/Monsanto, Master’s Choice and Stewart’s) but no information explicitly named which seed coating manufacturer’s product was on those seeds. Although three seed coating manufacturers were represented in the CDRC’s stakeholder group (Syngenta, BASF, and Bayer), Bayer’s David Fischer dominates the communications obtained by USRTK.
After the meeting, Fischer sent Johnson several pages of comments in which he asked for Johnson to remove the photos, and asked him to qualify several statements pertaining to bee health.
Despite this, conclusions remained unchanged between the June 2016 draft that Fischer commented on and the final report, aside from one statement that Johnson added to qualify the observed uptick in bee deaths: “The increase in adult mortality, however, would not be expected based on the concentrations of seed treatment insecticide measured in bulk pollen samples.”
In other words, it clarified that pesticide concentrations in the pollen were too low to adequately explain the bee deaths they observed.
“The insecticide was probably not evenly distributed throughout the pollen,” Johnson explained, referring to it as “the toxic chocolate chip cookie hypothesis.”
“There were these little chunks of the seed treatments and if the bee got that chunk, it was gonna die. But overall, the concentration, if you averaged it all together, was still below the level that was expected to kill bees,” he said in an interview with U.S. Right to Know.
Although Fisher’s requests appeared to elicit little change in the report, he asked for many changes: With regards to the flaky seed coatings, he called for a dedicated study to determine whether OSU’s seeds met industry standards, but noted that might be impossible for the specific batch of seeds that had been used in Johnson’s study.
“So the quality of the seed treatment of the seeds used in the OSU study is an uncertainty. Given this uncertainty, I would suggest that the photographs of abraded seeds be removed from the report, or at least a clear statement made that indicates the quality of the treatment of these seeds is unknown,” Fischer wrote. “Figure 10, showing the photos of seeds with a large amount of the seed treatment eroded as a result of planter abrasion is problematic. There are no data backing up the statement that the photo on the left represents a typical seed after passing through a planter. Also, the amount of a.i. [active ingredient] remaining on the seed hasn’t been determined. These photos have the potential to mislead the reader regarding the amount of a.i. lost due to dust abrasion. These photos should be deleted from the report.”
Fischer further suggested qualifiers and changes to the report, such as removing the word “elevated” from “[neonic] residues are reliably detected at elevated levels (8 ppb above background on average).” This suggestion was ignored.
Fischer also suggested that Johnson contextualize the neonicotinoid levels he found in pollen that bees had collected by discussing their risk to bee health. He provided several paragraphs of analysis and a diagram to that extent.
“The residue levels measured DO NOT indicate any appreciable risk to honey bees, and DO NOT explain the acute mortality observed in the study. The above analysis should be included in the report. Without it, the reader might mistakenly think that the residue measurements DO explain the mortality observed.” (Emphasis Fischer’s.) This appears to be the one area where Johnson et al added a sentence to emphasize the above fact, although Fischer’s diagram was not included in the final report.
Fischer also wrote to Johnson about the bee deaths documented in the research.
“It is important that the CDRC report emphasizes that the level of mortality documented in this study was low, and had no observed effect on colony development or viability.” he said.
Fischer went on to tell Johnson that one of his conclusions, that removing flowering weeds is unlikely to reduce pesticide exposure to bees, “needs to be considered speculative, because the risk to bees was very low regardless of the landscape conditions in this study.” This was ignored in Johnson’s section of the final report.
Fischer also told Johnson that “the number of trials is too few to draw the definitive conclusions” his lab made about the relative efficacy of Bayer’s seed planting lubricant.
Johnson responded to Fischer’s comments in an email to Pollinator Partnership staff two days later.
“Clearly, the photos of seeds have struck a nerve. I’d be very reluctant to remove the photos entirely, but I think David Fischer does have valid concerns,” he wrote.
When asked in an interview about what Fischer asked him to do, Johnson said he thought Fischer didn’t want the pictures to be highlighted in the report.
“I pushed back,” Johnson said, because he believed the degraded seed coatings could be an important factor in the questions the CDRC sought to answer. However, Johnson acknowledged that he didn’t know much about coated seeds, and Fischer’s concerns seemed valid if the seeds he’d photographed had been a fluke. He largely disregarded Fischer’s suggested edits, though, besides adding the line about how the average insecticide levels were lower than lethal in the pollen samples.
“I think we were happy with the conclusions we had come to. I guess we disagreed with what David Fischer had suggested,” he said, “except on that one point.”
Did Johnson think this exchange was an overstep on Fischer’s part?
“I think that was his role to play in this group, and he did it,” Johnson said.