Compromising the Extension Service

November, 2013

Lincoln -- As a former 4-H Club member, I've always been a supporter of cooperative extension programs in agriculture. Informing farmers and consumers about the latest agricultural research, the programs have worked successfully for decades, not least because of their unusual funding structure: part federal, part state, part local.

Each level of government has a stake and a say; no level has to bear the entire burden. This is a model ("cooperative federalism") that could be used more throughout government.

But my confidence in ag research and extension programs has been shaken by the intrusion of other interests into the equation.

This fall I visited a local Lincoln nursery to buy trees for our prairie property. I was surprised to see trees (e.g., ashes and elms) with known susceptibilities to certain insects offered for sale. The problems were dismissed by the nursery: just drench the roots annually with Bayer Advanced insecticide, which contains a neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) to kill the insects, I was advised.

But we raise bees and we try to provide a safe environment for pollinators of all types. Our country's food security is facing a serious challenge because of the precipitous loss of pollinators in recent years. We would not want to use any products that contain imidacloprid, which is toxic to bees.

I consulted an extension service webpage on the matter. It did not mention that imidacloprid is harmful to bees. I asked the nursery how many of their trees were already drenched with Bayer Advanced. Many species, it turns out. The nursery thought the more, the better, it was clear, as if this were a selling point.

The extension service is disseminating information on imidacloprid through the filter of Bayer Crop Science. Bayer is aggressively fighting bans of its products both in this country and abroad. Some localities in the USA prohibit imidacloprid; France, Germany, and Italy do not permit its use because of its toxicity to bees. Bayer claims its products pose a negligible risk to bees.

The Bayer tail is wagging the extension dog. As a taxpayer, I want the tax dollars I pay at the federal, state, and local levels devoted to research and extension uncompromised by fourth parties with agendas that may well be dangerous to the overall public interest: namely our food chain.