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Posts Tagged ‘GM crops’

Bees on their knees

Monday, April 16th, 2007

Honey bee on wax flower

“It is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.”
Carl Gustav Jung

More and more publicity is being given to the alarming collapse in bee populations in the US and Europe, the latest being in yesterday’s Independent in an article entitled Are mobile phones wiping out our bees?

“It seems like the plot of a particularly far-fetched horror film. But some scientists suggest that our love of the mobile phone could cause massive food shortages, as the world’s harvests fail.

“They are putting forward the theory that radiation given off by mobile phones and other hi-tech gadgets is a possible answer to one of the more bizarre mysteries ever to happen in the natural world – the abrupt disappearance of the bees that pollinate crops. Late last week, some bee-keepers claimed that the phenomenon – which started in the US, then spread to continental Europe – was beginning to hit Britain as well.

“The theory is that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bees’ navigation systems, preventing the famously homeloving species from finding their way back to their hives. Improbable as it may seem, there is now evidence to back this up.

“Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) occurs when a hive’s inhabitants suddenly disappear, leaving only queens, eggs and a few immature workers, like so many apian Mary Celestes. The vanished bees are never found, but thought to die singly far from home. The parasites, wildlife and other bees that normally raid the honey and pollen left behind when a colony dies, refuse to go anywhere near the abandoned hives.

“The alarm was first sounded last autumn, but has now hit half of all American states. The West Coast is thought to have lost 60 per cent of its commercial bee population, with 70 per cent missing on the East Coast.”

The article goes on to say:

“The implications of the spread are alarming. Most of the world’s crops depend on pollination by bees. Albert Einstein once said that if the bees disappeared, “man would have only four years of life left”.

“No one knows why it is happening. Theories involving mites, pesticides, global warming and GM crops have been proposed, but all have drawbacks.”

However, looking into more detailed, balanced and less sensationalist commentaries on the subject, such as the article on Colony Collapse Disorder in Wikipedia and the work of the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group, based primarily at Penn State University, a different picture begins to emerge.

Firstly, although wild and feral populations have been under stress for many years from habitat destruction, urbanisation, pesticide misuse, crop pattern changes and probably cellphone use as well, the phenomenon appears to be limited to ‘farmed’ bees — colonies kept and managed as commercial enterprises, and in particular, those of large commercial migratory beekeepers, some of whom have lost 50-90% of their colonies. Large-scale non-migratory enterprises are affected to a lesser extent. Large-scale migratory enterprises developed with the advent of modern hive construction, allowing colonies to be transported long distances and keepers to make a business from pollination services as well as, or instead of, honey production. The traditional small-scale self-employed beekeeper has been relegated to the status of little more than hobbyist.

Migratory beekeepers

US migratory beekeepers loading tractor-trailer load of bees for transport from South Carolina to Maine to pollinate blueberries.

According to Wikipedia:

“Honey bees are not native to the Americas, therefore their necessity as pollinators in the US is limited to strictly agricultural uses. They are responsible for pollination of approximately one third of the United States’ crop species, including such species as: almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries; many but not all of these plants can be (and often are) pollinated by other insects, including other kinds of bees, in the US, but typically not on a commercial scale. While some farmers of a few kinds of native crops do bring in honey bees to help pollinate, none specifically need them, and when honey bees are absent from a region, the native pollinators quickly reclaim the niche, typically being better adapted to serve those plants (assuming that the plants normally occur in that specific area).”

In other words, the critical crops affected are non-indigenous, artificially grown and maintained by man-made means, and are not part of the natural ecosystem of the area. So quoting Einstein and invoking the spectre of a worldwide disaster seems a little premature. (The dependence of the US agrarian economy on managed pollination is a direct result of pursuing large-scale monoculture which is naturally prone to catastrophic failure due to its inflexibility and lack of diversity.)

Secondly, the die-off has been logged for a good 35 years, progressively increasing over time such that between 1971 and 2006 it’s estimated that 50% of the US population of the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) has disappeared. In late 2006 and early 2007, the rate of losses reached new heights and the term ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ was coined to describe this more catastrophic turn of events.

Before the CCD label was attached to the phenomenon, it was variously known as autumn collapse, May disease, spring dwindle, disappearing disease, and fall dwindle disease, reflecting the fact that most die-offs were occurring at the change in seasons. The search for the cause has concentrated primarily on pathogens, pesticides, mites, genetically modified (GM) crops and cellular phone signal proliferation which have all been proposed as causative agents.

A preliminary survey by the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group revealed that a period of “extraordinary stress” affected the colonies in question prior to the die-off. To date, this is the only factor that all of the reported cases of CCD have in common. Most often, the stress involved poor nutrition and/or drought.

Some researchers have attributed the syndrome to the practice of feeding high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and protein supplements to augment winter stores. This was common to most beekeepers in Penn State’s survey. Most beekeepers affected by CCD report that they use antibiotics and miticides in their colonies, though the lack of uniformity as to which particular chemicals are used makes it seem unlikely that any single such chemical is involved. Others have identified the characteristics of immune disorders, similar to AIDS in humans. Specifically, according to researchers at Penn State: “The magnitude of detected infectious agents in the adult bees suggests some type of immunosuppression.”

The picture rapidly emerging from all this is of yet another species falling victim to large-scale commercially-driven farming methods. Limited genetic diversity combined with the cumulative effects of high doses of artificial feedstuffs (one of the early symptoms of impending CCD is that the colony is reluctant to consume provided feed, such as sugar syrup and protein supplement), repeated antibiotic and pesticide treatments, unnatural environments and lifestyle (migratory keepers regularly transport their hives considerable distances, often across different climate zones which, for a creature with sophisticated navigation relying on precise environmental orientation, can only be enormously stressful and disturbing), all contributing to severely degraded immune systems in chronically-stressed insects. This leads to massive numbers of fatalities in the adult worker population in times of extra stress, and as immune deficiency increases, so the stress threshold becomes progressively lower, hence die-offs no longer occur just at change of seasons or periods of drought and low food supply. Note that it’s the adult worker bees that are affected – the bees most likely to suffer from repeated dislocation.

Toxic chemical load is among the mechanisms which are more realistically proposed as causes of AIDS in humans.

When is the human race going to learn that we can’t go on employing short-sighted unidimensional linear logic in relation to living systems? It results in such crazy practices as increasing the toxic chemical load (antibiotics and miticides) in response to illness which is inevitably produced by our unnatural, inhumane and artificial chemical-based husbandry methods. The fact that commercial bee populations are dying off in such large numbers really isn’t at all surprising. The only thing to be wondered at is the resilience of the species in surviving for so long in the face of such an onslaught.

“Reality cannot be found except in One single source, because of the interconnection of all things with one another.”
Gottfried Leibniz

Can organic farming feed the world?

Saturday, August 6th, 2005

Organic farming

This question was the subject of the Soil Association Scotland’s Lady Eve Balfour Memorial Lecture last month (July 13) in Edinburgh. Speakers were Colin Tudge, author of So Shall We Reap, and Sue Edwards, director of the Ethiopian Institute for Sustainable Development. (The lecture was also given in London the night before and has been subsequently published inResurgence Magazine.)

As it turns out, the question might more usefully be framed “Can modern farming methods feed the world?”. Start digging below the surface of the agribusiness PR machine and a disturbing picture emerges.

Effects of modern farming methods

Effects of modern farming methods

Aside from all the health implications of artificial fertiliser pollution (see Time for a Change of Heart?), large-scale monoculture has enormous ecological implications which pretty much guarantee that it’s ultimately unsustainable. The bumper yields promised by selective crop breeding, genetic modification and artificial fertilisation are turning out to be largely pie-in-the-sky. GE crop varieties are becoming susceptible to disease even faster than conventionally engineered varieties. Attempts at large-scale agricultural management with the aim of securing our food supply have been highly inefficient – the EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy is generally accorded about as much respect as an appallingly bad joke – and successive managerial disasters have been compounded by tying the system up into greater and greater inflexibility. The supermarket shelves of the West have been kept stocked at a huge cost: enormous wastage on the one hand, and a progressive impoverishment and restriction of the agricultural sector on the other.

But it goes much deeper. Lack of attention to the quality of the soil itself is something that can’t be remedied by any amount of superficial dressing. Impoverished soils don’t hold nutrients or even water for very long, or support all the other kinds of life that are essential to the functioning of a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Loss of biodiversity results in a degraded ecosystem which has little or no flexibility to respond to change. Since 1945 almost 11 per cent of the Earth’s land area, about 12 million square kilometres (4.6 million square miles), has been moderately to severely degraded. Every year farmers abandon 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles) of formerly arable land because the soil no longer supports crops.

In contrast, Sue Edwards (who also happens to be the wife of Dr Tewolde Egziabher, Head of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority) showed what could be done when land reduced to virtual desert is properly cared for using local traditional methods of agriculture – which, after all, have sustained humanity for all but the last half century or so of its roughly 10,000-year existence – plus a little help and adjustment from what has been learned in other sustainable agricultural systems in other parts of the world. Substituting compost, including composted animal wastes, for direct application of animal manure has been one of the most significant and beneficial changes.

Dr Tewolde B G Egziabher

Dr Tewolde B G Egziabher, Head of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority

Her husband Dr Egziabher, widely acknowledged as Africa’s chief biosafety and biodiversity expert, was originally to have given this lecture himself, but had to cancel at the last minute in order to attend an international meeting on biological patents (see Canadian assault on biosafety). What’s going on here is simply criminal. Not content with chaining most of our own farmers to lifelong contracts for seed supply (see Percy Schmeiser vs Monsanto), agribusiness is seeking to hold some of the poorest people on the planet to ransom, prohibiting them from collecting and growing their own seed and forcing them to make annual payments for the privilege of obtaining the means to eke out the barest subsistence level of existence. Seems what the West gives with one hand, it takes away with the other …

So can we instantly return to organic methods of cultivation and solve the problem? Not without reversing some of the post-WWII population trends and society’s attitudes to agriculture and the food we eat into the bargain. Organic farming is more labour-intensive. The proportion of the US and UK populations now working on the land is just 1%, and even at that, the farming community is hard-pressed to survive against the demands of the processors and retailers, the dictates of agribusiness, and the regulations of the agricultural policymakers. Farming barely rates a score on our social scales of fashionable and aspirational occupations. Next time you see a supermarket advertisement trumpeting ever cheaper prices and better value, ask yourself who’s really bearing the cost. Steadily improving profits says it’s not likely to be the supermarkets.

It all seems depressingly reminiscent of our societal attitudes towards healthcare. Our values seem hopelessly upside-down. We’re happy to pay huge sums of money for overseas holidays, second homes, additional cars, the latest piece of technology or a cosmetic makeover, yet grudge a fraction of that amount for food and healthcare. Surely it should be the other way round? Shouldn’t the fundamental building blocks of a healthy existence be top of our personal spending and qualitative priorities, not devolved to the responsibility of a state dominated by profit-driven corporate agendas? And complaining about the state and the extent to which big business milks it for all it can achieves nothing either. Until each of us take personal responsibility for adjusting our priorities and spending patterns, we surely can’t expect the collective to reflect that adjustment. No matter to what extent big business tries to manipulate public spending patterns to safeguard its revenue streams, ultimately the choice is ours – each of us individually – and ours alone.

Back to basics – and what could be more fundamental, more salt-of-the-earth common-sense, than comments like these? (From Voices from Knox County.)

“Why is it that when somebody gets deathly sick with cancer or something, and a doctor recommends that they go on an organic diet? I think all these people know that there’s a difference.”

“If you get on a chemical system, the only way you can keep going is to keep adding more and more powerful chemicals. If you get on an organic system, it will perpetuate itself. You don’t need to keep adding more and more fertilizer because it is a natural system. It’s like the difference between paying interest on a loan and getting paid interest on your savings.”

“The nice part about organic is that it’s economically viable, and the reason is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money, because the Good Lord designed the cycles of nature in order to do it itself.”

More reading:
Interview with Dr Tewolde B G Egziabher
G8 approach to global poverty is simplistic
Compromise, Hell! – Wendell Berry

Percy Schmeiser

Percy Schmeiser

Thanks to the current insanity revolving around homeopathy in this country, in both media and blogosphere, it's become necessary to insult your intelligence by explicitly drawing your attention to the obvious fact that any views or advice in this weblog/website are, unless stated otherwise, the opinions of the author alone and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you choose to take anything from here that might be construed as advice, you do so entirely under your own recognisance and responsibility.

smeddum.net - Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard