The religious shareholder activists over at As You Sow, Clean Yield Asset Management, and Trillium Asset Management are all abuzz over a commitment made by General Mills to adhere to the White House Pollinator Health Task Force strategy on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides (hereafter referred to as neonics). AYS submitted a proxy shareholder resolution to the Minneapolis-based cereal giant this past spring, seeking:
Shareholders request that, within six months of the 2015 annual meeting, the Board publish a report, at reasonable expense and omitting proprietary information, on the Company’s options to prohibit or minimize the use of neonics in its supply chain.
Proponents believe the report should include:
Practices and measures, including technical assistance and incentives, provided to growers to avoid or minimize the use of neonics to pollinators; and Quantitative metrics tracking key crops that are grown from seed pre-treated with neonics, and the specialty crops in General Mills’ supply chain that depend on pollinators.
AYS and the other investment groups fear that neonics are the hypothesized culprit behind colony collapse disorder, the unexplained phenomenon of bees leaving their hives never to return. However, the theory that neonics caused CCD remains extremely hypothetical, and research reveals honeybees are doing quite well, thank you very much, as long as they avoid riding in trucks. In fact, American Council on Health and Science reports that “There are 81 million commercial honeybees in the world, and each hive contains about 50,000 bees.”
The resolution was withdrawn after the company’s agreement to update its Global Responsibility Report to reflect the task force’s neonics concerns, but not because of ACHS’s reporting. From the AYS, CYAM and TAM press release:
“Reversing the decline in pollinator populations requires attention to reducing the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, and supporting healthy soils and pollinator habitats,” said Shelley Alpern, Director of Social Research and Shareholder Advocacy at Clean Yield Asset Management. “Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Whole Foods recently made commitments to incentivize suppliers to cease using neonics. General Mills is the first major packaged food company to invest in an extended partnership to stem the excessive use of bee-harming pesticides.”
General Mills agreed to implement the new policies after working with As You Sow, Clean Yield, and Trillium Asset Management. The company has committed to “protecting pollinators from exposure to pesticides” through an extended partnership with non-profit conservation group Xerces Society and key commodity crop suppliers “to consolidate and disseminate guidance to growers of key commodities such as corn and soy on how to protect and minimize the impact of neonicotinoids and other pesticides to pollinators.”
“We commend the company’s actions on this issue,” said Susan Baker, VP of Shareholder Advocacy at Trillium. “These steps send an important market signal that working closely with suppliers to reduce pollinators’ exposure to bee-harming pesticides is essential to mitigating a serious systemic risk to our food system.”
The problem here is no one has proven that there’s a real problem in the first place, much less proven that neonics are causing the perceived problem. On colony collapse disorder, Jon Entine wrote in Forbes in early 2014:
The “crisis” prompting this hand-wringing is an age-old problem in the bee world: unpredictable bee deaths. They’ve occurred periodically for more than a century, but reemerged with a vengeance in 2004 in the California almond fields, where casualty rates briefly approached 60 percent. Beekeepers called it the ‘vampire mite scare’ because of its likely link to varroa mites—parasites that feed on the bodily fluid of bees—and on miticides used to combat them.
In 2006, there were fresh reports of unexplained bee deaths in what was known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, in which all the worker bees from a colony abruptly disappeared without a trace—no dead bodies to be found. The cause of the mysterious surge is still unclear. But as the crisis receded, attention turned to a less dramatic but more long-term challenge to bee health—sometimes also referred to as CCD, although experts believe it is a different phenomenon with different causes: the increasing number of bees that fail to survive through the winter….
Strident opponents of modern agricultural technology initially blamed GMOs for bee deaths, and some still make that claim, although there is zero evidence to back it up. When that didn’t get traction, the focus switched to neonics.
Even their sharpest critics acknowledge that the class of pesticides is extremely effective. Often applied only to the soil or used as a seed treatment, they were introduced in the late 1990s without incident as a less toxic replacement for the mass spraying of organophosphate and pyrethroid pesticides, which are both known to kill bees and wildlife. Organophosphates in particular have been linked to health problems in workers. Despite their comparatively benign toxicological profile, however, neonics have emerged as Public Enemy Number 1 in the eyes of anti-pesticide campaigners.
However, while bees face challenges, the numbers simply don’t support the “beepocalypse” narrative nor identify neonics as the driver of die-offs. As Scientific American’s Francie Diep noted in a recent article sub-headlined “why colony collapse disorder is not that big a deal anymore,” North American honeybee colony numbers have been stable for years at about 2.5 million even as neonics usage became more widespread.
The US picture echoes global trends. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of beehives worldwide, after a plunge in the early 1990s, well before the introduction of neonics, has been rising steadily.
As any good scientific writer would do, Entin refuses to let neonics completely off the hook, while providing some perspective:
The US Agriculture Department and the EPA convened a working group two years ago to address that very question. Their report, issued last May, put activists back on their heels. It concluded that neonics, while a contributor, were way down the list of possible causes. They cited as the primary drivers colony management, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, genetics and habitat loss. By far the biggest culprit—the report called it “the single most detrimental pest of honeybees”—was identified as the parasitic mite varroa destructor—the likely cause of the 2004 die-off.
The federal report echoed findings published last year by the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which evaluated the cause of bee deaths as the European Union was debating whether to institute a ban. DEFRA noted that the bees used in many of these lab experiments were exposed to doses hundreds of times higher than what they encounter in the wild, and they were often administered by injections.
Yet another study released just last month raises further doubts about the neonic-bee death connection. A joint report issued by scientists affiliated with USDA and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences concluded that honeybee deaths (and likely bumblebee deaths as well) stem from the tobacco ringspot virus (TRSV), not from pesticides. It’s long been known that foraging bees pick up the virus; what’s new is that researchers discovered that the virus has evolved the ability to infect bees, and it now attacks their nervous systems. TRSV then spreads to other bees—a process known as “host shifting”—by the mites that feed on them.
Yet, somehow the “religious” shareholder activists extracted harmful concessions from General Mills that do nothing to help bring to market affordable breakfast cereals and, further, unnecessarily threaten shareholder value by raising the costs of day-to-day operations.