Quite a Buzz: Earthjustice on ‘The Front Page of the Internet’

Attorney Greg Loarie recently discussed Earthjustice’s victory to ban the bee-killing pesticide sulfoxaflor in reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” forum.

Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie answered questions from the public last week in reddit’s renowned “Ask Me Anything” forum. ("Reddit Sticker" by Eva Blue/CC BY 2.0)

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“Would you rather fight a lawyer-sized bee or 100 bee-sized lawyers?”

Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie got this and more than 400 other questions from the public last week in reddit’s renowned “Ask Me Anything” forum. Loarie told eager redditors all about Earthjustice’s recent court victory on behalf of beekeepers to ban the pesticide sulfoxaflor, which is linked to Colony Collapse Disorder. Sulfoxaflor is a neonicotinoid, or “neonic,” a type of insecticide that is chemically similar to nicotine and that affects an insect’s central nervous system.

Reddit users asked about the future of beekeeping, the science of colony collapse and even Loarie’s favorite bee (or "B") movies. An outpouring of support lofted Loarie’s question-and-answer session to the site’s front page, which attracts up to 9 million visitors a day. Loarie’s Q&A is now one of the highest-rated “Ask Me Anything,” or AMA, sessions in reddit history (not bad for a list that also includes President Obama, Bill Gates and Sir David Attenborough)!

Read an excerpt of Loarie’s AMA here, or check out the whole conversation on reddit.com.

Q: What can the average person do to help bees?

A: First off, when buying ornamental plants for your home garden, make sure that they don't come pre-treated with neonics. Unfortunately, many big nurseries are still selling flowers that are sprayed with neonics … Home Depot, for example, tends to include a tag indicating that the plant has been treated with neonics "to prevent unwanted plants." Unfortunately, the tag doesn't divulge that neonics are deadly to bees, so the public can be misled into thinking that neonics are a good thing!

Q: Besides pesticides what are some other reasons for colony collapse?

A: Colony collapse is a really tough thing to get a handle on, because it can manifest in so many ways. Almost like a patient with AIDS, beekeepers are seeing their hives succumb to all sorts of maladies that it would normally be able to throw off. The emerging scientific consensus is that chronic exposure to neonicotinoids basically 365 days a year weakens the hive and makes it more susceptible to things like parasites and disease that would normally not be so catastrophic.

Q: I am a commercial beekeeper in California and I was very excited to hear this news. Thank you for your work! I would love to see a complete ban on neonics. How long did it take to get this case through the courts from beginning to end? Will you be the lead on any future pesticide cases? Is there anything beekeepers can do to assist in this process?

A: We filed the case in mid-2013, and briefing took place through most of 2014. A panel of federal judges held a hearing on the case in April of this year, and we got the decision last week. Beekeepers are critical voices in this fight—they are on the front lines after all! Commercial beekeepers are in a tricky spot, because they contract with growers for pollination services. There is always the concern that, if they speak out too much about pesticide use, they won't be asked back the next year for the bloom. We need to support beekeepers and raise up their voices.

Q: Successfully facing off vs the EPA and Dow Chemical, even in the 9th Circuit, is amazing. Congratulations! What were some of the most frustrating/challenging hurdles presented to you by the opposing counsel and how did you overcome them?

A: One big challenge we routinely face is that the courts tend to grant federal agencies a huge amount of deference when it comes to issues perceived as "technical." But in the case of sulfoxaflor, we were able to demonstrate that the problem was really pretty simple: EPA didn't have the scientific studies that they were supposed to have. The trick is cutting through the other side's inevitable smokescreen to make plain that basic flaw.

Q: Do you disagree that agencies should be granted deference in technical decisions in general?

A: I don't think I can say it better than Judge N.R. Smith, a judge appointed by President Bush who authored a special concurrence in the sulfoxaflor case. In Judge Smith's words: "We will continue to grant agencies great deference, particularly in cases, such as this one, which involve 'substantial agency expertise' … However, there is a great difference between ordering an agency to explain every possible scientific uncertainty …  and requiring it to articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action that is based on scientific data … For me, unless I am provided with evidence of the EPA's basis for its judgment and knowledge, I can only assume it acted with none."

Q: What made you work with Earthjustice in the first place?

A: I've been at Earthjustice for 15 years, and I cannot imagine a better place to work. I've had the opportunity to work on a huge range of different cases on behalf of so many committed people. In just about every case, we're up against giant for-profit law firms with seemingly endless resources. But the wonderful thing about the legal system is that it still provides a remarkably level playing field. It's been a genuine privilege to do this work.

Q: Would those chemical companies now try and poach you by offering obscene amounts of money?

A: Hah! I have no idea! I can tell you with great confidence, however, that the people who work at Earthjustice are not motivated primarily by money. Our lawyers don't drive fancy cars, and our executives definitely don't fly business. And yet you can pretty much feel the enthusiasm every time you walk in the door. For me, it's the sense that we're giving a voice to the voiceless. We're ensuring that the judicial system isn't just for the rich, but available for anyone and anything deserving of justice.

Q: What do you think will really happen if bees go extinct?

A: The reality is that commercial beekeepers will go extinct (read, bankrupt) long before honeybees. But the impact on agriculture and our diet will be essentially the same, because many of our most important crops absolutely require commercially kept bees for pollination. Agriculture as we know it just wouldn't be possible without commercial beekeepers.

Q: What is going to replace neonicotinoids?

A: The hope is that we will eventually find a way to get off the toxic treadmill of evermore reliance on pesticides. It's a social change, and it's not going to happen on its own. It's going to take commitment and real action on the part of government, corporate America, and all of us.

A journalist and graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Heather was the associate editor from 2015–2017.