On Wednesday, two beekeepers from Brandenburg stood outside Germany’s Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture to tell their story.
Beside them were stacks of buckets labeled “Glyphosat Honig.” At one point, one of the beekeepers, Sebastian Seusing, picked up one of the buckets and dumped it out onto the steps of the ministry.
“It felt good to let out this anger that you’ve built up in yourself about this system,” said Seusing, who founded Seusing Honig in 2009. “And we definitely have to change something in this system.”
It’s a system he holds responsible for allowing the common herbicide glyphosate to be used on fields near his beehives, ultimately leading to the contamination of his honey harvest and costing him his livelihood.
The story starts back in April 2019. That was when Seusing first noticed a nearby field, once overgrown with dandelions – a source of nectar for his bees – had been treated with a herbicide.
Seusing, who runs his business with his wife Camille, sent the honey to be tested, and that’s when their fear was confirmed: Glyphosate was found in the sample and deemed not safe for human consumption.
They extracted those 550 kilograms of honey in isolation, to make sure it didn’t come in contact with other batches. But later that year, their bad situation got even worse: more tests on hives three kilometers away found further contamination.
In November, they took full stock of the damage.
“We realized pretty quickly that we would actually have to give up our business,” Seusing said.
Over 4,000 kilograms of honey were contaminated in total, amounting to about 60,000 euros in damages.
In a statement put out this week, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture said what happened to the Seusings is regrettable but that it’s an isolated incident.
“Whether the farmer responsible for the glyphosate contamination has or has not acted in accordance with good practice must be cleared up by the local authorities,” added the ministry.
Thomas Radetzki, bee advocate and beekeeper himself, does not agree that what happened to the Seusings is an isolated incident. He told KCRW Berlin it demonstrates a “chronic problem with the use of pesticides in conventional agriculture.”
Radetzki is the chairman of the board of the Aurelia Foundation, an organization fighting to protect bees.
“We demand that glyphosate immediately stops being sprayed into flowering plants,” Radetzki said. “Because of course, when something is blooming on the field, the insects will consume it.”
So what kind of impact does a diet of pesticide-contaminated nectar and pollen have on bees and insects? Radetzki said it’s relative.
“The toxicologist knows that the amount of poison is always calculated in relation to the weight of the creature,” he said.
“I may eat one or two spoonfuls of honey per day, and I weigh 75 kilos,” Radetzki said.
But a bee larvae, he said, weighs less than a thousandth of a gram.
“For these micro bee larvae, which are hardly visible to the naked eye at first, that amount is rather dramatic.”
Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture writes on their website that the responsible use of pesticides is always a “top priority.”
“The principle is: as much as necessary, as little as possible.”
In an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost last August, president of the German Farmers’ Association, Joachim Rukwied, echoed this sentiment.
“In Germany, we use glyphosate only rarely – not in every field and not every year,” Rukwied told the newspaper. But in some situations, he said, “glyphosate is indispensable.”
The use of glyphosate is controversial in the European Union. In 2017, EU member states narrowly voted to allow its use through 2022, with Germany voting for it at the time.
But since then, several countries have been working towards bans of the weedkiller, including Austria and Luxembourg.
Last September, as part of an action program for the protection of insects, Germany’s federal cabinet said glyphosate would be phased out by 2023.
But that does not satisfy Radetzki, who says the insect protection plan is not ambitious enough, nor Seusing, who is critical of the role he says large corporations play in agricultural policy.
Both beekeepers are rallying for more action and immediate solutions.
On Saturday, Radetzki will join activists at the Brandenburg Gate demanding that Germany make greater environmental strides in the country’s agricultural policy.