More than 25 farmworker, environmental, and food safety organizations sent an open letter on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Agriculture demanding that the agency investigate reports that its scientists are facing retaliation and suppression of their research on controversial neonicotinoid insecticides that pose a danger to pollinator and human health.
"It is imperative that the USDA maintains scientific integrity and does not allow for harassment, censorship or suppression of findings that counter the interests of industry," states the letter, whose signatories include Farmworker Justice, Food & Water Watch, and Center for Biological Diversity.
The letter follows a petition filed in March by the advocacy organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) charging that "USDA scientists whose work carries with it policy implications that negatively reflect upon USDA corporate stakeholder interest s routinely suffer retaliation and harassment."
PEER executive director Jeff Ruch told Common Dreams that the petition was drafted "based on the experiences of 10 USDA scientists" who allegedly faced retaliation and punishment for research on neonicotinoid insecticides and glyphosate, which is included in Monsanto’s Roundup Herbicide, as well as related topics, including genetically modified crops.
According to the petition, consequences included suspension without pay, threats of irreparable damage to careers, and "[d]emotion from supervisory status and a reprimand after the scientist provided testimony before Congress that did not reflect agency preferences."
"Each one of these actions delivers a powerful message to all colleagues," said Ruch, who argued that retaliation against researchers stems from the coziness of the agency with the industry. "The USDA never met a biotechnology it didn't embrace," he said.
Tuesday's letter specifically sounds the alarm on the immediate implications for pollinator and human health.
"Bees, butterflies, birds and other critical pollinators are in great peril and populations are dwindling worldwide," the letter states. "A growing body of scientific evidence has implicated neonicotinoids as a leading driver of bee declines and glyphosate as a leading driver of the destruction of milkweed, the sole food source for monarch butterflies."
"Recently, the World Health Organization’s research arm, the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC), updated its cancer determination for glyphosate, categorizing it as 'probably carcinogenic to humans' (Group 2A) after reviewing scientific research from 17 of the world’s top oncology experts from 11 countries," the letter continues.
Yet the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has not taken meaningful measures to cut the use of dangerous pesticides, the missive charges.
The letter calls for the USDA to conduct "a thorough investigation into this matter" and enter its findings into the public record. Meanwhile, PEER is pushing for the agency to adopt specific policies to protect scientists from retaliation.
Critics warn that allegations of USDA suppression of scientists have broad human rights implications.
"If we cannot trust the scientific integrity of our scientists to protect bees, how can farmworkers be assured that their health and safety are not in jeopardy from a scientific community that is beholden to the interests of corporations and not to the protection of their own health and safety?" asked Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association of Florida in a press statement. "The issue goes beyond only protecting bees, but to protecting the public health, especially the most vulnerable, as well."