USDA whistleblower launches new bee research effort

USDA entomologist Jonathan Lundgren
USDA entomologist Jonathan Lundgren filed a whistleblower complaint alleging USDA retaliated against him because of his research on the adverse effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees and monarch butterflies.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

Scientist Jonathan Lundgren believes the USDA retaliated against him because of his research on neonicotinoid insecticides and potential effects on bees and butterflies.

Neonicotinoids are among the most widely used pesticides. Some research shows they harm bees and butterflies, but the chemical industry disputes much of the research.

Lundgren, who works at a USDA research facility in Brookings, S.D., filed a federal whistleblower complaint in October.

The USDA asked the complaint be thrown out. But last week an administrative judge called the complaint "non-frivolous" and ordered a hearing.

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While the case proceeds, Lundgren is planning to take his research outside the government. He's raising money to start a private research and education initiative. He's assembled a team to do research that he says he can't do within USDA.

"I'm still currently a USDA [Agricultural Research Service] scientist, but we've purchased a research, education and demonstration farm and are starting an initiative to complement some of the research that we're doing within USDA," he said.

The USDA declined comment on Lundgren's case. The agency says it approves outside work on a case-by-case basis, but it generally does not approve outside research similar to what the scientist does for USDA.

Lundgren said his new initiative will ask questions relevant to beekeepers and innovative farmers. He calls it "regenerative agriculture."

"We're not practicing sustainable agriculture because we've degraded a lot of the resources on our farms to the point where we really need to be thinking about strategizing," he said. "How can we rebuild soil? How can we rebuild biological communities on our farms while producing food?"

Lundgren said he wants to help farmers who are trying to reduce pesticide use. His research shows farming practices that restore biological diversity can reduce pesticide use.

"Our use of pesticides tends to be self-perpetuating," he said. "I'm not anti-pesticides, and I'm not anti-genetically modified crops, but what we're finding is that those costs aren't necessary once you're doing things a little bit differently."

Lundgren is not sure what the outcome of his whistleblower case will be. But he's pleased with support for his new research idea. He said a crowd-funding initiative raised $35,000 in the first two weeks it was active.

That's a start, but it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to run the research operation. That raises the question: Will funding from beekeepers or farm groups influence the research results?

"All of the science we're producing on Blue Dasher Farm is going to be completely open to the public," Lundgren said, "and it's going to be vetted by the scientific community itself, just like what happens at universities and what often happens at USDA."

The goal behind the working farm in eastern South Dakota is to conduct research that will generate income if theory can be put into practice.

"We're putting our money where our mouth is," Lundgren said. "We're not just talking about these ideas, but we're actually putting them into practice.

So that farmers can't come in and say, 'You know, that might work on a research farm but that's not going to work on my operation.' No, we're actually going to be tying our livelihood in part to the success of our farming operation."

Lundgren is convinced a lot of farmers are looking for a different way of doing business. He said conversations with farmers led him to pursue the idea of regenerative ag research.

"We're ready for some transformational changes in how we produce food, and those types of changes are coming from the bottom up, where the farmers are really leading the scientists in a lot of these areas."

Lundgren has plans to bring scientists and farmers together to learn from each other.

His future as a USDA scientist is unclear, but his choice to pursue his research is not.