Dallas' Own Dirt Doctor Wins a Round on Pesticides and Bee Hive Collapse

If bees ever totally disappeared, major types of agriculture would collapse for lack of pollination.
If bees ever totally disappeared, major types of agriculture would collapse for lack of pollination.
Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikipedia

I’m worn out. I spent part of my day trying to get Howard Garrett, the Dallas-based national radio host known as the “The Dirt Doctor,” to take an hour or two away from his lifelong battle with Big Chem, Texas A&M and the pesticide industry and pat himself on the back. I think tomorrow I’ll go downtown and try to get some statues to smile.

But, look, a big verdict just came down in the Dirt Doctor’s favor, and sometimes I think it pays just to see who’s actually ahead in some of these ultra-complicated environmental debates. Sometimes the debate is not as complicated as somebody may want you to believe.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally spoke officially Wednesday about neonicotinoid pesticides, a new but already globally prevalent type of pesticide that paralyzes insect pests and attacks their immune systems. What they had to say fell solidly on Garrett’s side of a bitter debate.

Garrett, a Dallas-based nationally syndicated radio host, garden author and landscape designer, has been warning for years of just what the EPA finally said officially on Wednesday — that the “neonics” (their nickname) may play some role in the environmental crisis commonly called hive collapse, a term for the rapid depletion of the nation’s supply of honey bees and other pollinators essential to agriculture.

The EPA reported findings that one compound in the “neonic” family of pesticides, called imidacloprid, may pose a risk to beehives when used on certain crops. Carefully couched and closely parsed, the EPA report nevertheless was the first official endorsement of a view long and bitterly opposed by the pesticide industry.

On the industry side of the debate, loudly and often vituperatively attacking organics advocates like Garrett, you have people, for example, like Jon Entine, author of a pro-chemical book published by a foundation supported by agro-chem giant Syngenta and writer of blog items for Huffington Post denouncing scientists who question the safety of pesticides.

Not saying Entine doesn’t have a right to express his views. Not saying he brings no credentials to the table, exactly. Just saying that the first serious government report on neonics is in, and, however carefully phrased it may be, it lands solidly on Garrett’s side of the table, not the side of the ardent defenders of the agro-chemical industry.

Neonics are a form of insect neurotoxin in wide use around the world to control agricultural pests. Entine has called fears about neonics, “a classic example of how dicey science can combine with sloppy reporting to create a ‘false narrative’ — a storyline with a strong bias that is compelling, but wrong.

“It’s how simplistic ideas get rooted in the public consciousness,” Entine writes. “And it’s how ideology driven science threatens to wreak public policy havoc.”

Garrett, on the other hand, for some years has been calling attention to research showing that this class of pesticide may have an important role in bee colony decline.

The EPA said in a press release that the agency, in collaboration with environmental agencies in Canada and California, had found that imidacloprid shows a threat to some pollinators.

“EPA’s assessment, prepared in collaboration with California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation, indicates that imidacloprid potentially poses risk to hives when the pesticide comes in contact with certain crops that attract pollinators,” the statement said.

Entine is entitled to his own at-bat in this game, right? So is Garrett. But I think we have to count this EPA report as a trip back to the dugout for Entine and maybe a two-base hit for the dirt doctor.

The same day the EPA finding came out, Entine did an article for Huffpo under the headline, “Wild Bees Disappearing? Another Month, Another Bungled Bee Study.” It was about another study that reached a finding Entine didn’t like, not the EPA report, which he didn’t mention. I have queried him on it, and I will come back here and include any remarks he may offer.

Garrett, meanwhile, needed a whole lot of prodding and goading before he would count the new EPA report as any kind of feather in his own cap. One of the things nagging at him, for example, was the continued insistence of the chemical industry that pesticides like the neonics have no effect on humans.

“They like to say that we don’t have the same pathway to being toxic in our bodies that insects do. The trick there is that bacteria and the other biological activity in your gut and an animal’s gut do have that pathway.”

I asked him if he couldn’t just take one day off from that kind of stuff and enjoy this recent official endorsement of his views and his predictions.

“I think we’re making some progress,” he said. “You can tell that we’re still way in the minority because you walk into a Lowe’s or Home Depot and what greets you inside the front door is giant piles of all the stuff that I don’t recommend — synthetic fertilizer and the weed and seed fertilizers and the herbicides, the glyphosates and 2,4-D

But …I asked if this EPA wasn’t sort of a good sign anyway.

“We certainly haven’t taken over or fixed the issue,” he said, “but it is definitely moving in the right direction, just way way too slow and too little.”

And that, ladies and gentleman, was the dirt doctor’s version of jumping up and down screaming, waving pom-poms. Best I could get out of him.

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