Viewpoint: Why is National Geographic embracing simplistic activist narratives on nuanced pesticide controversies?

honey bees

For more than a century, National Geographic has produced a high-quality magazine that is well-grounded in science, history and culture. Lately, however, the editors have allowed agenda-driven articles based on flawed research to slip in between the covers.

Take, for example, the latest piece by science writer Elizabeth Royte, which focused on the work of Jonathan Lundgren, who is portrayed as a hard-working scientist-farmer. He claims that widely used, state-of-the-art neonicotinoid insecticides “may be a threat to mammals,” as well as to bees (an allegation that has been thoroughly debunked). 

Lundgren became a martyr to the activist community following his departure from a research position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture after bending ethical rules in support of his personal agenda. Now that he’s a private citizen, his crusade against modern pesticides has accelerated.

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The experiment appears to have been specifically engineered to produce the desired conclusion that “pesticides are bad,” rather than an honest effort to get unbiased results. It followed a classic hit-and-run pattern:

  • Step one: Take a small sample size of your test subjects.
  • Step two: Force feed them with a ludicrously large amount of the substance you intend to vilify.
  • Step three: Make outsized claims about the risks posed by that substance – even though no animal would ever encounter such high doses in the normal course of events.
  • Step four: Issue press releases and schedule media interviews.

The reason this technique works so well is that, in high enough doses, almost everything is toxic, or even fatal. Pathological drinking of water, or psychogenic polydipsia, is a life-threatening condition, as it may lead to severe hyponatremia (low blood sodium), leading to cardiac arrest, coma and cerebral edema. Even excessive ingestion of nutmeg can be toxic and occasionally fatal.

Nobody would suggest that water and nutmeg should be banned by the government as a precaution against their potentially toxic effects, but that’s exactly what Lundgren and company want to do with the organic food and agriculture industries’ nemesis: neonicotinoid pesticides.

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All of these issues should have raised concerns at National Geographic. Over-the-top claims should always be treated with editorial skepticism, which makes one wonder what has changed at the magazine if they’re letting such whoppers slide by.

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Related article:  Organic farmer: Don’t ban neonics but put aside simplistic view of harmless of pesticides
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