By Steve Volk
March 3, 2016
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Entomologist Jonathan Lundgren blames overuse of pesticides and a lack of crop diversity for the dwindling honeybee population. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Jonathan Lundgren is buying a parcel of land — a scrubby, 30-acre plot just north of Brookings, S.D. — from which he hopes to lead a revolution. An entomologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, based in a South Dakota lab, Lundgren plans to start two businesses: Blue Dasher Farm, a for-profit enterprise he describes as a model for sustainable farming; and Ecdysis, a nonprofit science lab for independent research.
The land, rolling hillocks and flatlands alive with wildflowers and blooming weeds, includes a large house for his family and storage facilities he can convert into a lab. Even as this future beckons, however, his recent past still stings.
U.S. agriculture, says Lundgren, is in crisis. A lack of diversity in farming and a related overreliance on pesticides have triggered a host of negative effects, including the decline of pollinators, such as butterflies and bees.
Bees are vital to U.S. agriculture, pollinating foods that make up roughly a third, and the most nutritious portion, of our diet, such as fruits and leafy greens. But commercial beekeepers continue to report escalating losses of 42 percent or more, jeopardizing $30 billion in annual revenue and our health.
A couple of years ago, the now 40-year-old Lundgren — running a government lab, winning awards from both his agency and President Obama — occupied the right position to aid in this crisis. He says he was doing just that when the trouble started: a pair of suspensions — one for conduct unbecoming a federal employee and another for violating travel regulations.
In October, Lundgren filed a whistleblower suit alleging that he was disciplined to suppress his science. The government says the suspensions had nothing to do with his research. Today, he is the most outspoken of several scientists who say they feel muzzled by the government.
The lawyers who filed Lundgren’s suit allege that nine additional USDA scientists have been ordered to retract studies and water-down findings, or have faced discipline in retaliation for their work. They further allege that three of those scientists, beyond Lundgren, were also working on pollinator-related research. The USDA’s inspector general just announced an audit, to take place later this year, in response to the “significant volume” of complaints they’ve had on their office’s hotline, alleging scientific censorship on pesticides and other issues.
This dynamic of government scientists claiming suppression extends across institutions. Just a few months ago, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration alleged that the House Science Committee, led by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), was attempting to intimidate researchers who had produced data indicating that global warming hadn’t slowed.
Such disputes show how complicated the intersection of government, science and industry can become when billions of dollars are at stake.
A mural at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., testifies to the importance of corn to the state. Corn is regularly treated with the neonic pesticides some say are dangerous to bees. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Lundgren, a husband and father of two, is tall and slim, passing into middle age with a sparse beard and steady demeanor. A native of Lakeville, Minn., 25 miles south of Minneapolis, he remarks on his troubles with studied Midwest politeness. Where others might drop expletives, he says “holy buckets.”
Close associates, however, say he bears a profound stubborn streak. “When Jon thinks he is right about something, he’ll dig in,” says his old doctoral adviser at the University of Illinois, Rob Wiedenmann. “He’ll shift when he finds that he is wrong, but you need to prove it to him.”
As a USDA-ARS employee, Lundgren has run his own lab and staff for 11 years, wrote a well-regarded book on predator insects, published nearly 100 scientific papers and acted as a peer reviewer for dozens of publications. For years, his body of research was either neutral or favorable to farming policy and the chemical industry. But three years ago, he started cautioning against the overuse of pesticides. That shift, he says, triggered his suspensions and the downturn in his professional fate.
He believes the problem began in 2012, when he published findings in the Journal of Pest Science suggesting that a popular class of pesticides called neonicotinoids don’t improve soybean yields. He also served as a peer reviewer for a Center for Food Safety report on the dangers of neonics. The next year, he published a paper suggesting that a new genetic pest treatment, dubbed RNAi pesticides, required a new means of risk assessment.
The publications drew media interest, and after an interview with an NPR affiliate, Lundgren was brought into a conference call with his supervisor, Sharon Papiernik, and an area director above her, Larry Chandler.
“You shouldn’t talk to the press anymore without prior approval,” Lundgren says Chandler told him. “We’re trying to protect you.”
As a regulatory scientist, Lundgren believed that discussing his research was part of his job.
Neither Papiernik nor Chandler responded to requests for interviews. A USDA spokesman said the agency would handle all responses. The spokesman said that Chandler doesn’t remember the conversation and that ARS scientists often receive guidance or approvals from supervisors and can present peer-reviewed research results but cannot speculate on policies.
A few months later, in 2014, Lundgren gave an interview to Boulder Weekly. Within two weeks, he was the subject of a misconduct investigation over his office behavior. Lundgren was cited for dancing around the office and pretending to hump a chair. He allowed two employees with the same name to differentiate themselves by “AP” and “EP,” for “average penis” and “enormous penis.” He teased one employee about being so old she dated Napoleon. He was suspended for three days.
He says he never felt anyone on his staff was uncomfortable or he’d have stopped. “I’d lay down in traffic for my employees, and they know that,” he says.
After contacting all 11 of Lundgren’s then-staff members, as identified by staff members themselves, a complicated picture emerges. Eight requested anonymity, one spoke on the record and two declined to be interviewed — one invoking a nondisclosure agreement many staffers claimed they were asked to sign; the other saying, “If other staff members are talking to you, you’ll find out what you need to know.”
Collectively, Lundgren’s staff members described the work environment as loose, sometimes juvenile, but said the whole group participated. They even collaborated on a letter to management decrying the investigation.
Lundgren says he feared they might face reprisal and declined to pass the letter to his supervisors. But a former staff member supplied a copy, along with contemporaneous emails in support of it from the two staffers who declined to be interviewed. The letter states that “what management construed as behavioral misconduct” was “not offensive to those immediately involved.”
USDA officials cannot speak on the record about personnel matters, but a spokesman said the investigation was conducted after management received a complaint from an employee in Lundgren’s lab and bore no connection to his interviews or research. The USDA spokesman also said there was no nondisclosure agreement.
As a manager, Lundgren couldn’t be represented by the union, but his staff sought out Sheila Sears Wichmann, a now-retired ARS union rep, to guide them as witnesses. “I was a union rep for 35 years,” says Wichmann. “I’ve seen sexual harassers and serial harassers, the kind of things where even I — as the union rep — would think, ‘Go on and knock his block off.’ But this, was nothing.”
Wichmann believes Lundgren was the real victim. “I don’t know why they did it,” she says, “but it seemed that they wanted to get him and were out to find some way of doing it.”
Lundgren with Janet Fergen, his lab manager for 10 years before retiring. He was suspended for misconduct in the office. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Janet Fergen, retired after 30 years at ARS and 10 years as Lundgren’s lab manager, is the one former staff member who spoke on the record. She agrees with Lundgren’s assessment that something shifted after his soybean yield study.
“There were questions from management about how the study was conducted,” she says. “That hadn’t happened before.”
She also questions the timing of the USDA’s investigation, saying the incidents they asked about had occurred “many months earlier, so if it was so serious where was the urgency?”
Lundgren says the tumult left him stunned. “At first, I couldn’t believe this was happening,” he says. “But as time went on, it seemed like anytime my work got media attention, they came after me.”
It happened again, he says, when he submitted a paper to his supervisors early last year, describing how clothianidin — another form of neonic pesticide — harms monarch butterflies. Papiernik returned the paper, asking for minor revisions. Following standard USDA-ARS procedures, Lundgren says, he made the requested changes, then submitted the paper to a scientific journal for publication. He also supplied an interview on his as-yet-unpublished results to an NPR affiliate.
Almost immediately, an ARS national program leader in pest management emailed him for more information and compared the paper to a different scientist’s discredited study. Two weeks later, Lundgren says, Papiernik came into his office “visibly angry,” questioning why he’d given the interview and telling him the paper wasn’t approved. Lundgren says he reminded her that she had reviewed the paper and requested only minor edits.
A week later, in March last year, he was in trouble again. Lundgren says he was late filing a travel request before a trip to Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., to address a group of farmers and the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and forgot to sign the form. After his flight landed, Lundgren says he received a text from Papiernik advising him that his trip was not approved and declaring him AWOL. He was suspended for two weeks.
“Dr. Lundgren failed to seek the necessary approvals for travel, thereby violating the agency’s guidelines,” a USDA spokesman said. “He submitted an unsigned request to accept contributed travel for that meeting on the day of his departure, leaving insufficient time to ensure the travel met ethical and other agency guidelines.”
In his whistleblower complaint, Lundgren’s attorneys cite three USDA scientists who committed similar infractions without being disciplined (two took trips without having their paperwork countersigned; another filled out paperwork after the trip). A fourth scientist, Jian Duan, said in a phone interview that he forgot to fill out paperwork until after a trip but faced no penalty.
After this, Lundgren says, he became the subject of his supervisors’ unrelenting focus: investigating his grants and his use of government vehicles, reviewing his slides for a presentation and even requiring him to retract his name from an article on the adverse consequences of increased U.S. corn production because it seemed to comment on policy.
By this time, he says, he started thinking about his next steps.
Lundgren, in fact, first tried working through the USDA’s standard procedures to get his career back on track. After his first suspension, he filed a scientific integrity complaint, according to USDA-ARS procedures, alleging that his research and attempts to communicate his findings to the media had been disrupted. The USDA rejected the complaint, and after an appeal, a five-member panel convened by the agency recently confirmed that decision.
The internal report, deemed confidential by the USDA but released by Lundgren’s attorney, states that “the scientist’s written complaint did not provide credible and verifiable evidence that his research was impeded and that he was restrained from communicating with the media.”
The report cites multiple instances in which Lundgren was allowed to publish research and give interviews or travel to present his findings.
Jeff Ruch, the executive director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility who has been representing Lundgren, says the report reveals a systemic problem inside the agency: “No witnesses named by Lundgren were interviewed,” Ruch says. “The panel was told not to even consider allegations of reprisal. And they also repeated USDA’s position that they can prohibit any scientist from talking to the media even about already published research, which completely undermines any claim of scientific freedom.”
A USDA spokesperson said: “The documents that this organization has released affirm that the referenced allegation of scientific misconduct at USDA is untrue and misleading. Both the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Agency scientific integrity officer and an independent USDA scientific integrity review panel have reviewed the allegation and found it to be unsubstantiated. The scientific integrity review panel has spoken, and we stand by their decision. We will have no further comment on this matter.”
Commercial beekeepers continue to report escalating losses of 42 percent or more. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
To this point, Lundgren stands largely alone in his dispute with the government. The nine other scientists cited by Lundgren’s attorneys choose to remain anonymous because they fear reprisal, according to Ruch, head of PEER, the alliance of scientists that is representing Lundgren.
There are signs, however, that this could be changing. Data seems to be mounting suggesting that pesticides are a significant contributor to bee declines.
A recent scientific literature review conducted by researchers in the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Italy determined that pesticide exposure renders bees more susceptible to disease and increases mortality rates. Pesticides have also been linked to harming bees’ memory and navigational capabilities.
“No one would describe them as the driver,” says Lundgren, “but they are significant, and the government doesn’t seem to want to do anything about them.”
Most of the attention has focused on neonicotinoids. Entering broad use here in the late ’90s, neonics’ global share of the pesticide marketplace ballooned by 2008 to roughly 25 percent and $2.5 billion. Neonics can be implanted directly on the seed and are classified as a “systemic” insecticide because they are fully incorporated into the plant’s tissue, remaining present in pollen and nectar.
Two key studies have found that feeding neonics to bees, even in amounts so low they couldn’t be detected afterward, render them more susceptible to infection. The co-author of one of those studies, Jeffrey Pettis, is joining Lundgren in speaking out.
Pettis is a highly respected entomologist and led the USDA’s bee laboratory in Beltsville for nine years, through April 2014, when he testified before the House Agriculture Committee.
Pettis had developed what he describes as a “significant” line of research showing that neonics compromise bee immunity. But in his opening remarks before Congress, he focused on the threat posed by the varroa mite, often put forward by chemical company representatives as the main culprit behind bee deaths.
Only under questioning by subcommittee Chairman Austin Scott (R-Ga.) did Pettis shift. Even if varroa were eliminated tomorrow, he told Scott, “we’d still have a problem.” Neonics raise pesticide concerns for bees “to a new level,” he said.
About two months later, Pettis was demoted, losing all management responsibilities for the Beltsville lab.
Dave Hackenberg, a central Pennsylvania beekeeper and longtime friend of Pettis’s, says Pettis confided in him that the official reason given for his demotion — poor performance as an administrator — wasn’t the real one. The real reason was his congressional testimony.
Pettis, 61, has never provided a full public account of his side of the story. But with Hackenberg talking he decided to respond. “Dave and I talk a lot,” he said, “and I cannot be sure what I might have said to him around the time of my demotion.”
But, Pettis said, the USDA’s congressional liaison told him that the Agriculture Committee wanted him to restrict his testimony to the varroa mite. “In my naivete,” he said, “I thought there were going to be other people addressing different parts of the pie. I felt used by the whole process, used by Congress.”
The hearing was “heavily weighted toward industry,” he said, “and they tried to use me as a scientist, as a way of saying, ‘See, it’s the varroa mite,’ when that’s not how I see it.”
As for his demotion, Pettis called himself a “bad administrator.” But did he think the hearing played a role?
Pettis delivers an elliptical answer. He said he walked up to Scott afterward, to make small talk, and the congressman “said something about how I hadn’t ‘followed the script.’ ”
A spokeswoman for Scott said the congressman no longer chairs the same House agriculture subcommittee and referred questions to the committee’s professional staff. A spokesperson there declined to make anyone available for an interview.
“In my gut,” said Pettis, “I feel I pissed someone off with my testimony. Beyond that I have not felt or seen the big hand of industry saying, ‘We’re going to make you pay for this.’ I have seen more direct evidence that Congress was influenced by industry than I ever felt with regard to the USDA.”
A USDA spokesman said Pettis’s demotion was in no way linked to his research or testimony, and points to USDA studies on the varroa mite, sublethal pesticide effects and preserving genetic diversity as examples of “breakthrough studies” the agency has conducted.
Lundgren is planning a farm where he says he can demonstrate the viability of crop diversity in large-scale farming. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
The dispute hit a new low for Lundgren in July, when he finished a draft of a new paper on RNAi pesticides.
RNAi pesticides work by attaching a molecule to the target pest’s DNA, keeping specific, vital gene sequences from functioning.
Lundgren and postdoc Chrissy Mogren used computer software to mimic the action of 21 such pesticides to determine if any threaten honeybees. What they discovered is that each pesticide might bind with some section of the honeybee’s DNA. Lundgren himself describes this result as not so dramatic as it sounds. The honeybee genome is vast, and any overlap between the pesticide and the bee’s genome might prove innocuous and unrelated to survival.
Still, Lundgren thought of this research as a step to encourage further study. He also knew the data would likely spark more trouble with his bosses, so he sent the paper to seven colleagues for informal peer reviews. Five suggested relatively minor revisions, checking one of two boxes indicating the paper as “acceptable” for submission. Neil Hoffman and John Turner, both managers for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, referred to the paper as “trivial” and didn’t check a box.
Hoffman and Turner said the paper offered no evidence of “meaningful” interactions between the pesticides and the honeybee genome. Lundgren’s supervisors made the same argument and refused him permission to submit the paper to an outside journal.
“The whole process seemed tainted to me by then,” says Lundgren. “They were suppressing science. This was a ‘proof of concept’ paper” — a pointer to areas scientists might research further — “a standard part of science.”
Greg Heck, Monsanto’s weed control platform lead, with an expertise in RNAi technologies, believes Lundgren is too alarmist about the new technology and says Monsanto is conducting tests to make sure the pesticides are harmless to bees. But, hearing what the paper contains, he said he believes submitting it for publication was appropriate. “I haven’t seen the study, but I am a firm believer in getting research out there,” he said, “because then we can discuss the results and say, ‘Hey, is any of this truly meaningful?’ ”
At this point, Lundgren started planning a lab outside USDA, with some of the people he calls his “professional family,” including a pair who worked with him when he was suspended for unbecoming conduct.
He accompanied me to the site, a half-hour jaunt from his ranch home across the flatlands and open highways of Brookings. The farm, Blue Dasher, is named after Lundgren’s favorite dragonfly species. Ecdysis is the process of molting, when an insect sheds its skin and transforms, a period of great promise and vulnerability. The symbolism is entirely conscious.
“I don’t think science can be done, at least on this subject, in any of the conventional ways,” he says. “I think we need truly independent scientists — not funded by government or industry.”
Bee declines, says Lundgren, are not difficult to understand. “Yes, the bees are in crisis, and we need to help them,” he says. “But what we have is not a bee problem. What we have is a biodiversity problem.”
U.S. corporate agriculture tends toward monoculture farming — in the simplest terms, one giant farm specializing in one crop. The two key monoculture crops are corn and soybeans. Corn alone takes up 30 percent of the country’s crop space, an area almost the size of California.
Soybean acreage is nearly as vast. The corn rootworm, the Colorado potato beetle and soybean aphids all thrive best on the crops that give them their names. And so monocultures have allowed, even caused, says Lundgren, pest populations to explode.
“We’re using all of these pesticides because we’ve created a pest problem,” Lundgren says, “and bee health is a symptom of this underlying cause.”
He says the solution is to diversify American farming. “Any other course is unsustainable,” he says. “Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides should be something we resort to, not a first option.”
Lundgren says he will use Blue Dasher to prove farmers can produce high yields, big profits and enough food by rotating crops, which will suppress pest populations naturally.
As he stands at the edge of what he hopes will be his new operations, the land spread out before him, he looks happy.
“This,” he says, “is the future.”
In November, when he accepted a civic courage award in Washington from the Shafeek Nader Trust for his stand against the USDA, he evoked the future as a talisman, a future in which bees and our food supply will no longer be under threat. This time, as if sensing skepticism, he goes on: “I really believe it,” he says. “We can do it through science.”
Steve Volk is a writer at large for Philadelphia Magazine and a contributing editor for Discover.
Editor’s note: A version of this story appears in the print magazine of March 6, 2016. After this story was printed, a five-member panel convened by USDA ruled that Lundgren’s claim has no merit. That development has been incorporated into this version.
A cutline in an earlier version of this story said bees are critical to corn. Corn is wind-pollinated.