Pollinator Research

June, 2015

Lincoln -- A UNL entomologist is establishing pollinator plots on the East Campus near 48th and Holdrege Streets. “Now it’s a dream to work in this field,’’ he told the Omaha World-Herald. “Everybody has an interest and wants to help and work with you. The public is embracing the idea of pollinators.’’

This is good news, especially during National Pollinator Week. The Lincoln Journal Star also noted the importance of pollinators in a recent editorial. Likewise, there has been extensive and appropriate press coverage of new UNL research on the harmful effects of pesticides on bee behavior.

What is unsettling, however, are the increasingly strident attacks against those whose concerns for bees and butterflies extend to the misuse of genetic modification technology against such pollinators. Some of us are working on a better understanding of the role GMOs play in the decline of pollinators; for example, the genetic modifications made to crops to produce their own insecticides can harm beneficial as well as destructive insects; and the widespread use of glysophate on certain crops, made glysophate-tolerant through GMO technology, has caused an alarming decline in pollinator habitat. These concerns are based in science, but to read some of the pro-GMO polemicists, one would think people who question the rush to GMOs must also be climate change and evolution deniers, or trendy pseudoscientists. GMO foods may or may not be safe for human consumption (that will take more long-term study; several countries regulate them more than does the U.S.), but their harmful effects on the environment cannot be discounted easily by these kinds of ad hominem attacks.

What is also unsettling is how research in these areas is conducted and how it is being funded. The UNL study showing how pesticides disrupt honey bee behavior was conceived by an elementary-education graduate and funded by the Kimmel Foundation (related to the pollinator-dependent Kimmel orchards). Good for them. But should these questions not be a priority of those whose expertise is entomology and funded by taxpayers rather than interest groups, no matter how worthy? As a former federal research administrator, I know too much about the research funding process, and how faculty pursue grants, not to raise such a question. Research must not be for sale or have the appearance of such. It is doubtless safer to raise the question on this Kimmel-funded study than on one funded by Bayer, Syngenta, or Monsanto, lest the questioner be labeled anti-science for even a bit of skepticism regarding GMOs.

The history of Nebraska suggests those with skepticism about supposed agricultural advances may prevail in the longer run. Think of the skeptics who challenged the "science" of their time such as rain-follows-the-plow; deep plowing of the sod; mechanized farming up and down hills; center-pivot irrigation on sandy soils; the safety of heptachlor and aldrin; the safety of atrazine. All were touted at one time or another by those claiming to be leading scientists. Now the bloom may already be off the rose of glysophate, not only because of its effect on pollinator habitat, but because the World Health Organization has classified it as a probable carcinogen. Skepticism should never go out of fashion; it is, in fact, essential to scientific method itself.