Hey, I'm Lee Fang and I'm an investigative reporter for The Intercept. I focus on the intersection of money and politics, but I cover a wide variety of topics, from health care and climate change to the political strategies that shape the direction of society. In recent years, I've covered the integration of the military with Silicon Valley, the influence of Saudi Arabia over American policymakers, and the internal clashes for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.
I'm looking forward to answering questions about my latest feature investigation, The Playbook for Poisoning the Earth, a comprehensive look at neonics, one of the main pesticides fueling the mass-die off of a range of insect life. Lobbying documents and emails reveal a vast strategy by the pesticide industry to influence academics, beekeepers, and regulators, and to divert attention away from the potential harm caused by pesticides.
UPDATE: Thanks for joining, hopping off now. You can follow me on Twitter at @lhfang.
what is the biggest/worst pushback you've gotten during an investigation?
An account I owned as a teenager was hacked and I've been harassed in many ways in relation to my reporting, but I consider myself privileged to some degree to live in the U.S. with relatively high levels of press freedom. I've met Honduran journalists whose colleagues have been murdered for reporting on local oligarchs, I've met Chinese journalists who have to constantly walk a tight rope around reporting difficult stories for fear of government reprisal. I consider myself lucky.
How does average person try to help do something about pesticides being used? It’s easy to feel like this is all just completely out of the public’s control
There's no great answer to this. There are advocacy groups, there are also state and local efforts to regulate dangerous pesticides such as neonics and chlorpyrifos. Try to speak to your state legislators about it. Also, if the Dem presidential candidates or your member of Congress is in town, it wouldn't hurt to ask them about the issue and record their answer.
Did your research reveal the potential for the collapse of the food chain?
When I learned about the issue, there was quite a bit of concern about this, especially early on in 2007 regarding the seemingly sudden disappearance of European honey bees due to increasing use of neonics. The European honey bee pollinates much of the crops we eat in the U.S. But European honey bee hives can be quickly rebuilt through queen purchases and hive splitting. The more pressing danger is to non-commercial pollinators, which pollinate native plants. The danger of mass extinction for a range of bumble bees, dragonflies, and water-borne insects is much more severe, and that could have a cascading impact on many other species.
Why are institutions (government, research, etc.) in the US more susceptible to influence by industry than institutions in Europe?
European research institutions tend to rely on public funding, here in the U.S., universities are effectively privatized, and academics are expected to rely on corporate funding and grants. It's a lot like the problems in campaign finance. In many places in Europe, politicians never have to ask big corporate interests or wealth donors for money because elections are run through public financing, and non-profit public institutions manage the debates. Here, it's a different story.
What is the typical budget for an investigative story -- what is the weirdest thing you have charged as an expense for an investigation?
This story wasn't very expensive, but I did have to fight several universities for charges related to record requests I filed. That amounted to a few hundred dollars. There's no typical budget -- every story is different -- other than time, which has its own fixed value I suppose.
Hi Lee, thanks for doing the AMA.
What are some alternatives to neonic use? How can pesticides be used more efficiently, with fewer widespread effects, or not at all?
Are there people within the industry working for alternatives to pesticides?
Thanks for the question. There are researchers working on new methods for controlling pests. Ironically, there's evidence to suggest that the massive application of neonics provides little benefit or even reduced crop yields in some cases, but farmers have few choices for seed coatings and the pest management industry is riddled with conflicts of interest with the chemical firms.
This Center for Food Safety report discusses several natural methods for controlling common pests. Ag monoculture, which attracts pests like root worm, is part of the problem. Research suggests crop rotation strategies can be very effective. Also, the bt corn that many farmers *already* use may effectively control for root worm. https://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/alternatives-to-neonics_v9_23186.pdf
The USDA/EPA and major universities are heavily shaped by the chemical industry. Ultimately we need more public interest minded research to develop new strategies that are environmentally sound and beneficial to farmers.
Listening to useful idiots I wondered whether you have some kind of private database of all the persons, organizations and corporations that constitute the 'blob'? Something you built during your years of reporting on this topic?
Also how were you able to get Charles Koch to give you an impromptu interview with actual unscripted answers?
I try to focus my reporting on those who hold power in society, and so I tend to run across the same names over and over again.
In terms of speaking to David Koch, I had been walking around Capitol Hill during the swearing in ceremony in Jan. 2011 for the Tea Party wave of lawmakers, and I just spotted him and walked up and started asking questions. Apparently John Boehner, just moments after becoming Speaker of the House, invited Koch into his office to thank him for getting the GOP elected, and when I ran into Koch he was on his out of the meeting. Here's the video https://twitter.com/lhfang/status/1164942632599953409
What made you pursue this story and how has it been trying to get it exposure?
I've written about the pesticide and chemical industry's lobbying before (https://www.typeinvestigations.org/investigation/2014/03/13/poisoned-politics/) and have always been interested in this topic. There have been many headlines on the mass extinction of insect life, but not enough reporting IMO on the role of the pesticide industry in shaping the legal and political landscape to ensure minimal regulation. I tried to to provide a comprehensive look at the history of neonics, which hasn't been done before in a journalistic piece, along with new documents/reporting on why the U.S. has done so little to confront the issue. Haven't gotten too much exposure but it takes time for an issue that feels esoteric to get public traction.
Thanks for your work. Which developing nations seem to be at most risk of using problematic chemicals as a result of this campaign?
Brazil, if you count it as a developing country. The current gov is in bed with the agrichemical industry and has unleashed many new pesticides, including neonics but others.