These Chemical Giants Deserve a Stinging Rebuke

While most people probably associate bees with their nettlesome sting, the insect is critical to sustaining life on earth, pollinating 80% of all flowering plants and some three-quarters of this country's fruits, nuts, and vegetables. The loss of the bee population would be devastating to U.S. agriculture.

Watching bees fly from flower to flower in your garden might have you thinking that's not much of a concern, but colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is a large and growing threat and it has not only beekeepers and farmers worried, but those likely most responsible for it: the agri-giants like Bayer, Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW  ) , and Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) .

Honeybees in particular are suffering from the malady, which even the Agriculture Department is forced to admit is likely the result of overreliance on pesticide use, though it lists it after other possible causes such as disease, nutrition, and stress.

CCD is the lack of adult honeybees present in a hive even, though there is a live queen. Moreover, no dead honeybee bodies are found around the hive, there's still honey in the hive, and immature bees are present. The colony becomes like some bee ghost town.

Some bee farmers report losing as much as 90% of their hives from the disorder with estimates ranging as high as one-third of all colonies having been lost since 2005. Because certain virus-transmitting parasites have frequently been found in hives hit by CCD, the chemical makers are quick to point to them as the cause of the collapse and a report issued last month by a USDA panel that included representatives from Bayer, Dow, and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT  ) , said that while pesticide use could be a concern particularly in high dosages, "it is not clear, based on current research, whether pesticide exposure is a major factor associated with U.S. honey bee health declines in general." 

Yet the European Food Safety Authority, which apparently doesn't have such a vested interest in protecting the corporations as does the USDA, has found chemicals like Bayer's clothianidin and imidacloprid, along with Syngenta's thiamethoxam, an "unacceptable" danger to bee populations. 

The three chemicals make up what are known as neonicotinoids, nerve agents that are used to treat about one-third of the U.S.'s planted crops. Together they are used to treat 94% of U.S. corn, 100% of canola, three-quarters of all sorghum, and two-thirds of our sugar beet crop. A number of recent studies also point to the "neonics" as a prime suspect in CCD.

Critics also highlight the proliferation of genetically modified crops, particularly Monsanto's MON810 corn that has been altered to kill insects that try to eat it, as another culprit killing off bees. Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Poland have gone so far as to completely ban it, with the latter doing so particularly because of its connection to CCD.

Naturally the chemical manufacturers say the concerns are overblown, with sufficient study in the field proving the chemicals' safety. Yet in a bid to contain what damage might be done to their investment, the chemical makers have also begun studying bee health in earnest themselves. Bayer has opened "bee care centers," Syngenta is funding research into CCD, and Monsanto even purchased the leading bee research firm Beelogics. 

While such investments would seem to show concern for the health of bees, it's also pretty much a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Beelogics was one of the leading researchers into CCD, and now one of the possible culprits owns it. I think Monsanto cares not so much for the research conclusions per se but rather its work in genetically modifying the bees themselves. It is seeking patent protection for its RNAi-based -- meaning the bees' genetic code -- treatment, which raises the obvious threat of what happens to the beekeepers whose bees get crossbred with Monsanto's? If history with its seeds is any guide, it will go after them legally for violating their patents. 

Ultimately, Monsanto and the other biotechs need more than just a stinging rebuke from investors for their role in causing the collapse of bee colonies and the threat it poses to our food supply.

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Read/Post Comments (12) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2013, at 10:02 PM, gistanleyjr wrote:

    As a microbiologist/chemist I must say that I need to reread this article over 10 times to try to understand exactly what this means. I own Monsanto stock, so I guess this makes me biased against bees. But wait, I like bees and realize their important roles polinating my apricot, peach, pear, and bing cherry tree. I like bees! So, Monsanto has a secret foojuice that interferes with bees RNA. What about their DNA? And how does this affect corn, wheat, and other crops?

    Me, I only have a B.S. and M.S. in microbiology, I'm a dumbo. Chou, George

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 2:37 AM, donjoanie wrote:

    To Rick Duprey: Do you think you could stick to the facts instead of spreading misinformation? I get disgusted when I see articles that are written with such a profound slant that the heavy bias of the author is obvious. For example, you write "Critics also highlight the proliferation of genetically modified crops, particularly Monsanto's MON810 corn that has been altered to kill insects that try to eat it, as another culprit killing off bees. Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Poland have gone so far as to completely ban it, with the latter doing so particularly because of its connection to CCD." Well maybe you can explain to us why CCD is occurring in countries where GMO crops have never been grown. Once again, GMO crops are the whipping boy of people of your ilk. You spew the propaganda of organic and anti-GMO advocates while ignoring basic science. Please stop.

    To Motley Fool: Why do you allow people like Mr. Duprey to have a platform to spread misinformation? Unfortunately, I see this too often in the articles posted by Motley Fool. For the sake of your own credibility and integrity, I recommend that you do some basic fact checking before posting articles by Mr. Duprey and others. That is the least you can do for your readers. There is already too much junk on the Internet.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 9:06 AM, funfundvierzig wrote:

    C 'est bizarre. The name "DuPont" is strangely and conspicuously missing from the litany of big seed and pesticide producers, even thought DuPont as the second largest seed enterprise on the globe is spending hundreds of $millions annually to license Monsanto's superior genetically-engineered traits to plunk into DuPont Pioneer's otherwise conventional and inferior seeds.

    If GMO traits are linked to bee maladies (and we don't buy this without question), why isn't DuPont mentioned? ...funfun..

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 9:10 AM, TMFCop wrote:

    donjoanie,

    Because, as the article makes abundantly clear, it's not *just* GM crops that have been linked to colony collapse disorder, but also the use of pesticides, particularly the trio of neonicotinoids. And since those were in use in Europe CCD has manifested itself there.

    Yet Poland particularly didn't want Monsanto's GM corn and so they banned it because it was related to CCD *elsewhere.*

    Hope that clears it up for you. Thanks for reading.

    Rich

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 9:15 AM, TMFCop wrote:

    funfun,

    DuPont could certainly have been mentioned, but I was addressing some particular concerns here and to simply drop a company's name in because of its tangential relationship to the article would be inappropriate.

    As I'm sure you are aware, I have included DD in my coverage of the issue where appropriate:

    http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/06/06/did-monsant...

    Thanks for reading,

    Rich

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 10:28 AM, funfundvierzig wrote:

    Rich, thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    We respectfully demur. If DuPont is selling $billions in GM seeds with the same herbicidal and insecticidal traits as Monsanto, Syngenta, and other seed producers, the consequence is hardly "tangential." ...funfun..

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 10:37 AM, donjoanie wrote:

    Rick, I stand by what I said. You made the statement that genetically modified crops are "another culprit killing off the bees". I then asked you to explain how you could include that information in your article when CCD is occurring in countries that have never grown genetically modified crops. You have yet to answer my question.

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 12:00 PM, TMFCop wrote:

    donjoanie,

    Unfortunately you're conflating two issues. I pointed to 2 causes in particular: pesticides and GM crops. I noted that a number of European countries have banned MON's GM corn and that Poland did it because of its relation to CCD. At no point did I say CCD occurred in Europe because of GM crops so you're arguing a point that wasn't made.

    I guess you'd have to ask the Polish ag ministers why they're concerned about CCD occurring due to genetic engineering since GM crops aren't grown there.

    So I guess to make it clearer, as both my article and my first response said, pesticides are a prime concern for causing CCD while GM crops are ID's as another culprit here at home. Yet some countries are so concerned about CCD resulting from GM crops that they especially don't want MON's GM corn coming into their country.

    There's no other way to explain it.

    Rich

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 1:52 PM, donjoanie wrote:

    Rick Duprey: Respectfully, you have made my point again. In your last comment posted you write "I pointed to 2 causes in particular: pesticides and GM crops." But clearly, GM crops can't be the cause if CCD is occurring in areas of the world where GMO crops have never been planted. Don't you think that fact is noteworthy and would have made the article more balanced?

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 2:14 PM, getthetruth2 wrote:

    rich: I don't know why the Fool lewts you blog here. There is nothing accurate in your blogg. Monsanto is not killing bees with Bts and it isn't killing bees in the EU with GM crops that don't exist there. So wrong #1. TheEU banned the nicotinimide pesticides (that Monsanto's doesn't made) and the farmers will go back to using much more toxic insecticides (they don't have BT crops that don't harm bees) that will kill everything. Monsanto is one of those chemical compnaies that is going biological instead of chemical but you lump wthem with Syngenta and BASF and Bayer and completly ignore Dupont.

    You don't have the knowledge to write an article like this - a teenager would do better for a school project (maybe you are a teenager)

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 2:15 PM, getthetruth2 wrote:

    It is probably not your fault but the editors who probably don't have a scientific fact in their minds

  • Report this Comment On June 25, 2013, at 4:24 PM, Rat11 wrote:

    another very misleading and naive propoganda hit from MF. The major Bt crop in the US is corn which is not pollinated by bees. How are the bees ingesting the Bt protein? In addiition, Bt insecticide sprays have been used for decades and have never been implicated in any bee problems that I know of. Finally, the exclusion of DD from this is very telling. Pushing the hot buttons of Dow and Monsanto tells me the author is getting his information from activist websites with an agenda. I simply dont understand MF trafficking in this muck.

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