USDA, EPA deny bad blood over controversial soybean analysis

By Tiffany Stecker | 05/14/2015 07:16 AM EDT

Contrary to appearances, there’s no conflict between the Agriculture Department and U.S. EPA on the issue of protecting honeybees and other pollinators, USDA’s acting chief economist said at a hearing yesterday.

Contrary to appearances, there’s no conflict between the Agriculture Department and U.S. EPA on the issue of protecting honeybees and other pollinators, USDA’s acting chief economist said at a hearing yesterday.

Republicans on the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research pointed to a letter sent by USDA acting Chief Economist Robert Johansson last month in which he criticized an October 2014 EPA analysis that found that soybean producers received little to no benefits from seeds coated with neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids are insecticides that are absorbed into a plant’s system and can become present in a flower’s pollen, which environmentalists say can poison bees.

But the comment letter on the analysis, which used words like "premature" and "incomplete" to describe EPA’s assessment, does not reflect the overall relationship between EPA and USDA, he said.


"We do a lot of collaborating on a lot of issues," Johansson told Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). "I wouldn’t necessarily call it squabbling or anything like that; it’s just that we wanted to make sure that our comments were heard."

EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Jim Jones, the only other witness at the hearing besides Johansson, agreed.

"We coordinate and collaborate with virtually every move we make of significant note," said Jones, pointing to USDA’s Office of Pest Policy as one liaison between the agencies. "But we can always do better, and we are committed to doing better and make sure that we’re coordinated as we can be."

Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) drilled the witnesses on the so-called disagreement, asking Johansson if he was surprised to read the soybean analysis.

"I wouldn’t classify it as a huge disagreement," Johansson answered. "I think EPA acknowledged there were some important questions that they needed to get more data on and wanted to people to comment on that."

Yoho was the first to bring up the possibility of bad blood between the agencies during questioning.

"How do we get you guys on the same page, working for a common goal, instead of fighting against each other and not communicating with each other?" he asked.

This isn’t the first time House Agriculture Republicans have wanted USDA to apply pressure to EPA on issues that affect agriculture. Lawmakers have asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack multiple times in hearings to take a firm stand against the "Waters of the United States" proposal, which was developed jointly between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. The proposal, currently under interagency review at the White House Office of Management and Budget, would expand the number of waterways that receive automatic protection under the Clean Water Act.

Vilsack has consistently told lawmakers that he would not meddle in the affairs of EPA (E&E Daily, Feb. 12).

The White House Task Force on Pollinator Health, which is headed by USDA and EPA, is expected to release a highly anticipated report in "the next several weeks," said Jones. The panel criticized the report’s long delay, which was originally set for release in December.

"Five months later, we are still waiting for this report," said Davis in his opening statement.

The hearing came the afternoon after the release of an Agriculture Department report stating that more than 40 percent of surveyed honeybee colonies last year were lost, with much of the deaths occurring in the summer (Greenwire, May 13).

Subcommittee ranking member Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) expressed disappointment that the hearing centered around the issue of neonicotinoids rather than the multitude of stressors that affect pollinator health.

These include a lack of forage, poor quality pollen, pesticide exposure and pests like the Varroa mite, a parasite that transmits diseases to bees.

"By focusing on the perception of a disagreement between agencies during an open and transparent public comment process, we reduce our oversight role to refereeing," she said in her opening statement.

Davis responded to DelBene, saying that the committee was limited in bringing up more issues around the problem of bee decline in the absence of a Task Force report.

"Otherwise, we would have had those stakeholders sitting at the table," said Davis, referring to beekeepers, farmers, the pesticide industry and federal agencies working on the issue.

"What we see as an oversight institution, we see a disagreement between agencies that are working together," he added.

After the hearing, Davis told reporters that he is pushing EPA to follow through with a provision in the 2014 farm bill that would place someone with an agriculture background on the agency’s scientific advisory board. EPA has an agriculture adviser, Ron Carleton, but Davis would like a voice from someone not employed by the agency.

"We think that’s imperative, to get somebody who’s not an EPA employee, to be able to be another agricultural voice," he said.