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Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, an expert on the risk assessment of pesticides and genetically modified crops, worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research for more than a decade. But when his findings on the ill effects of systemic pesticides and RNAi (a biological process in which RNA molecules inhibit gene expression) on pollinators began to gain traction and visibility, the harassment and punishments did as well.

The 40-year-old agro-ecologist and entomologist hoped that if he kept his head down, the increasing aggression would dissipate. But it didn’t. His scientific work continued to be disrupted along with his ability to communicate with other colleagues and the press.

Photo credit: Dan Gunderson / MPR News
The 40-year-old agro-ecologist and entomologist hoped that if he kept his head down, the increasing aggression would dissipate. Photo credit: Dan Gunderson / MPR News

Ultimately, the coercion and intimidation derailed Lundgren’s career and he stepped down as lead scientist and lab supervisor.

“USDA is blocking science,” Lundgren affirms. “And I refused to be silenced.”

On behalf of Lundgren, The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed an official Whistleblower complaint.

“Censorship of public agency science does not affect only scientists—it concerns the public at large as well as every entity relying upon the integrity of USDA science,” PEER executive director Jeff Ruch stated. “USDA cannot piously pledge its devotion to scientific integrity while at the same rebuffing any attempts to safeguard it.”

Separately, PEER has also filed a lawsuit against the USDA to strengthen its Scientific Integrity Policy. The suit targets official restraints on USDA scientists who publish or speak about their findings in peer-reviewed journals before professional societies and other unofficial settings.

In June, USDA Chief Scientist Catherine Wotecki wrote a letter which stated that the agency refused to consider the substance of the petition because scientific integrity only affected its “internal personnel rules and practices” and was therefore exempt from the public notice and comment process normally required of agency rules.

Sublethal Low-Level Harassment

Neonicotinoid seed treatments, manufactured by Bayer and Syngenta, have been harming honeybees since they were introduced on the marketplace in the mid ’90s. They are the most widely used insecticides with sales of about $2.6 billion. Today they’ve infected our soil, waterways and have even been fond in our blood stream. They’re harming our pollinators as well as developing human brains.

“Neonics are 5 to 10 thousand times more toxic than DDT, and the environment and everything in it is being poisoned by the toxic equivalent of hundreds of billions of pounds of DDT every year,” Tom Theobald, activist, beekeeper and founding member of the Boulder County Beekeepers Association, said.

Lundgren’s troubles began around March when he submitted an article to the scientific journal Naturwissenschaften (The Science of Nature). His data illustrated that the seed treatment and systemic pesticide Clothianidin kills monarch butterfly larvae in the laboratory and that these pesticides were found in milkweed plants, the only food source for developing larvae, under field conditions.

Several months after Lundrgen’s article was published, his direct supervisor Sharon Papiernik confronted him and informed him that the paper shouldn’t have been submitted without “official” approval. She was also upset that he’d conducted a radio interview on the topic.

“The USDA gave me the okay [to publish the study] and then after the paper drew international attention from the media, said they never did,” Lundgren recalled.

Not long after that incident, The National Academy of Sciences and Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance scheduled Lundgren to give presentations on his research on the effects of genetically modified crops on farmland ecology. It is customary for these organizations to cover his travel expenses to Pennsylvania and Washington, DC.

Lundgren was literally boarding the plane when his superiors instructed him to return home and reimburse airfare costs out of his pocket. He was reprimanded for not completing the requisite paperwork. He was told to return to his duty station immediately, that he was officially AWOL and would not be paid for the week. This was his first accidental oversight on travel paperwork in 11 years and three other employees had had similar travel oversights within six weeks before Lundgren and received no discipline.

Next, he was suspended for 30 days before they reduced it to two weeks without pay.

“That’s a severe punishment for doing my job,” Lundgren said in an interview from his South Dakota homestead Blue Dasher Farms. “The tax payers, farmers and beekeepers paid for this research to be done. I don’t work for the government, I work for the people of the U.S. They deserve to know the latest science on these issues, even if that data is politically inconvenient.” The suspension affected his personnel file, harmed his reputation and cost him more than $9,000 in lost pay and expenses.

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