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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Honeybee study had sweet conflict of interest

The New York Times is taking heat for a poorly done front page article 10/6 that announced a “breakthrough” in knowing what to blame for honeybee colony collapse disorder.

New research puts the blame on the interaction of germs. Problem is, a chief suspect in this mystery has long been the neonicotinoids type of pesticide. They are manufactured by Bayer CropScience. The lead researcher in this "breakthrough" is Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk who has received funding from Bayer CropScience.

Journalist Katharine Eban, writing in Fortune, laid bare the conflict of interest. Eban wrote: “A cheer must have gone up at Bayer on Thursday when a front-page New York Times article” blamed a fungus tag-teaming with a virus. There was no mention of Bayer’s pesticides in the article. Eban also tells us that Bromenshenk once worked with North Dakota beekeepers on their lawsuit against Bayer, but dropped out and was given a grant from the company. And she tells us that Bromenshenk's company, Bee Alert Technology, is developing hand-held acoustic scanners that use sound to detect various bee ailments, and will profit more from a finding that disease, not pesticides, is harming bees.

Bromenshenk defends the study and emphasized that it did not examine the impact of pesticides. "It wasn't on the table because others are funded to do that," he says, noting that no Bayer funds were used on the new study.

The Times reporter who authored the recent article, Kirk Johnson, said that Dr. Bromenshenk "did not volunteer his funding sources."

A leading theory has been that neonicotinoids weaken the bees, making them more susceptible to fungi and viruses.

Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says Bromenshenk’s study is interesting, but fails to ask the underlying question "Why are colonies dying? Is it because they're getting weak? People who have HIV don't die of HIV. They die of other diseases they get because their immune systems are knocked off, making them more susceptible." In other words, pesticides could weaken the bees – then the virus/fungus combination finishes them off.

Mary Budinger’s comment:

At what point will newsroom standard operating policy state that anytime you deal with a research finding, you ask “who paid for this research?” In this day and age of rampant conflicts of interest and bought-and-paid-for research, it’s mandatory to look at the objectivity of the information. Yet it still doesn’t happen. You are seeing how special interests spin the news and shape what you think.

This episode also raises the issue of a quaint notion of “it’s just a little bit.” The EPA approved neonicotinoids on the idea that the amounts found in pollen and nectar were low enough to not be lethal to the bees. This is a classic case of underestimating the impact of man-made toxins. Studies have shown that at low doses, neonicotinoids have sublethal effects that impair bees' learning and memory.

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