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Posts tagged ‘pesticides’

Mind Your Own

My parents moved house last week. They weren’t, though, the only inhabitants of their property to relocate. During their final few days of packing, a swarm of bees took up residence in my sister’s old tree house. Unfortunately for the bees, there was no way that they could safely establish a hive there, so my mother called Gerald the Bee Man, who put her in touch with a couple of local beekeepers. They lulled the bees into submission with smoke, and then coaxed them into a new hive over the course of two days. The queen and her underlings will spend the rest of their lives pollinating fruit trees, far away from the temptations of suburban tree houses.

Deciding to remove, rather than exterminate, errant bee colonies has implications beyond the ethics of killing animals and insects. Bees exist not only to make a cheerful buzzing in our gardens and to provide us with honey. Einstein remarked, famously: ‘if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live.’ Although this is something of an exaggeration, I can understand his terror at the thought of the disappearance of bees, both culturally and ecologically.

Bees are invoked, frequently, as metaphors for our societies – the way we live, the way we organise ourselves – and for how we should be. One of the most striking features of researching the Victorian period is the number of references to bees and beehives. During a debate on a new Bees Regulation Bill in the Cape Colony’s House of Assembly in July 1894, one MP objected to the legislation which, he believed, would limit beekeeping in the Cape on the grounds that bees provided the poor with an example of hard work and co-operation:

Yesterday they were treated to various dissertations on the abject misery of the poor white population, and yet they were now asked to consent to the second reading of a measure which would deprive the poor white population of the country of one of the most useful object lessons they could possibly be afforded them.

Describing colonial society as a beehive, Henry de Smidt, the Director of the Census in the Cape, argued for the inclusion of ‘idle’ children in the Census because they formed ‘an integral portion of the human hive, drones though they might be.’

Both men echoed Isaac Watts’s tremendously popular poem ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’:

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.

(I prefer Lewis Carroll’s version, ‘How doth the little crocodile?’)

For the Victorians, the appeal of the beehive lay in its tightly organised and maintained social structure, its strict hierarchies, and its efficient productivity. It was at once a metaphor for a harmonious society and a well-run factory.

Bees are also useful for describing our often fraught relationship with nature: I think of the periodic, National Enquirer-esque hysteria around killer African bees invading the United States. I wonder if the horror of Roald Dahl’s story ‘Royal Jelly,’ where a beekeeper accidentally turns both himself and his baby daughter into bees, was reflective of wider anxieties about the implications of human tampering with nature during the early 1980s.

The decline of bees says as much about us, as it does about bees. But other than providing a series of handy, mutable metaphors, bees and, indeed, other pollinators both wild and farmed, are absolutely essential to our food chain. Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum explain:

honeybees are vital for the pollination of around 90 crops worldwide. In addition to almonds, most fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are dependent on honeybees. Crops that are used as cattle and pig feed also rely on honeybee pollination, as does the cotton plant. So if all the honeybees disappeared, we would have to switch our diet to cereals and grain, and give our wardrobes a drastic makeover.

The disappearance of the world’s bees has significant implications for our food security. Ensuring that we have enough to eat is linked to health of our pollinators.

The decline in European bee populations began in the 1960s, but since the late 1990s, this has both accelerated and spread around the globe. Between 1985 and 2005, managed honeybee populations declined by 20 per cent across Europe, and 54% in England. In the United States, four of the main bumblebee populations have diminished by up to 96%. In Britain, three of the region’s 25 bumblebee species are now extinct, and half of the remainder have declined significantly, some by as much as 70% since the 1970s.

A paper published last month in Science

showed more than half the wild bee species were lost in the 20th century in the US. It made use of a remarkable record made of plants and pollinators at Carlinville, Illinois between 1888 and 1891 by entomologist Charles Robertson. Scientists combined that with data from 1971-72 and new data from 2009-10 to discover the changes in pollination seen over the century as widespread forest was reduced to the fragments that remain today.

They found that half of the 109 bee species recorded by Robertson had been lost and there had been a serious degradation of the pollination provided by the remaining wild insects, with their ability to pollinate specific plants falling by more than half. There was an increasing mismatch between when plants flowered and when bees were active, a finding consistent with climate change, according to the researchers.

So it’s not just various species of honeybee which are dying, but bumblebees and wild bees too. So why are they disappearing?

Bees on a wall in Woodstock, Cape Town

Bees on a wall in Woodstock, Cape Town

Scientists all over the world are still trying to answer this question. Initially, the dramatic decline in bee populations from around 2005 were ascribed to a mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder – also called Marie Celeste Syndrome – where whole, apparently healthy, beehives seemed to die overnight. In 2007, a third of beehives in the US were wiped out in this manner. In the same year, ten million bees were reported to have died in just a fortnight in Taiwan. In the winter of 2007/2008, a fifth of British beehives disappeared too.

It’s unlikely that there is a single cause for CCD. A combination of factors arising from climate change, depleted habitats, decreasing biodiversity, and widespread pesticide use, have placed ever more stress on the world’s bee populations. Last year, the varroa mite was linked to the global decline in bee numbers:

Varroa destructor has spread from Asia across the entire world over the past 50 years. It arrived in the UK in 1990 and has been implicated in the halving of bee numbers since then, alongside other factors including the destruction of flowery habitats in which bees feed and the widespread use of pesticides on crops. Bees and other pollinators are vital in the production in up to a third of all the food we eat, but the role the mites played was unclear, as bacteria and fungi are also found in colonies along with the viruses.

But the mite’s arrival in Hawaii in 2007 gave scientists a unique opportunity to track its deadly spread. ‘We were able to watch the emergence of the disease for the first time ever,’ said Stephen Martin, at the University of Sheffield, who led the new research published in the journal Science. Within a year of varroa arrival, 274 of 419 colonies on Oahu island (65%) were wiped out, with the mites going on to wreak destruction across Big Island the following year.

The European Union has proposed a partial, two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops to limit the decline of European bee populations:

Scientific evidence has mounted rapidly since March 2012, when two high-profile studies found that bees consuming neonicotinoids suffered an 85% loss in the number of queens their nests produced and showed a doubling in ‘disappeared’ bees who got lost while foraging. Neonicotinoids have been fiercely defended by their manufacturers, who claim there is no proof of harm in field conditions and by farming lobbies who say crop yields could fall without pesticide protection. Some neonicotinoid uses have been banned in the past in France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany, but no action has yet been taken in the UK.

The removal of the hive from my parents’ garden made me wonder to what extent CCD has affected South African bee populations. And the answer – I think – is that local bee numbers appear not to have declined as dramatically as those abroad. I’d like to qualify this statement heavily: this is the conclusion I’ve drawn after a morning’s worth of fairly thorough research. I’m not a melittologist (obviously) and I may well have missed a few vital and obvious studies.

Bees are certainly under threat in South Africa. As the South African Bee Industry Organisation notes, habitat loss and the arrival of foreign parasites have taken their toll on bee populations.

Also since 1990 a problem has emerged caused by the movement within South Africa of colonies of the endemic Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) to regions outside its natural distribution. The interaction between these Cape honeybees and colonies of the other honeybee species in South Africa proved to be disastrous. The so-called Capensis Problem caused extensive damage in the beekeeping industry in South Africa.

Interestingly, though, South Africa’s bees seem to be more resilient to the threat posed by the varroa mite. The mite was first identified in the Western Cape in 1997, having probably entered the country in contaminated hives offloaded at Cape Town harbour. It then spread around the country, even infecting wild bee populations. But only a small minority of bee colonies have collapsed so far.

Why? Well, local bee species may have developed ways of repelling or resisting the mite. Also, South African bees, although under increasing stress, don’t have to contend with the same range of threats as do those abroad. A 2009 survey of the density of bee populations all over the world concluded that ‘Genetic diversity and colony densities were highest in South Africa and lowest in Northern Europe’. The authors of the study suggest that these differences correlate with climate – bees in more temperate regions tend to be healthier than those that are not – but also with the fact that South African bees are able to roam across far bigger wild habitats:

African subspecies disperse via long-distance migratory swarms, leave the nest in response to disturbance or disease (absconding) more readily, and have a faster generation time and smaller colonies than European honeybees. These traits promote population gene flow and high genetic diversity, boosting effective population sizes in Africa.

Agriculture, with its pesticides and low biodiversity, seems, then, to have an impact on the health of European bee populations.

We’re already beginning to feel the impact of the decline in bee populations:

The most dramatic example comes from the apple and pear orchards of south west China, where wild bees have been eradicated by excessive pesticide use and a lack of natural habitat.

In recent years, farmers have been forced to hand-pollinate their trees, carrying pots of pollen and paintbrushes with which to individually pollinate every flower, and using their children to climb up to the highest blossoms. This is clearly just possible for this high-value crop, but there are not enough humans in the world to pollinate all of our crops by hand.

Looking at the comparative good health of South African bees suggests ways in which the global bee population could be increased. Limiting the use of pesticides, increasing habitat for bees by planting wild flowers and leaving areas of uncultivated vegetation on farms, and finding ways of preventing the spread of parasites, will all assist in encouraging healthier bee colonies. All over the world, campaigns and organisations have emerged to lobby for the protection of bees, and the coolness of urban beekeeping is linked, I’m sure, to wider concerns about declining biodiversity.

A world without bees, is a world which will struggle to feed itself.

Further reading

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, A World without Bees (London: Guardian Books, 2008).

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 21.11.2012

The lawyers who took on Big Tobacco take on Big Food.

Britain’s nutrition recession.

Pesticides are killing bumblebees.

Obama did best in those states which watch Top Chef.

Improving Kenyan children’s access to good nutrition.

The implications of buying more food from China.

Apple and pear farmers face increasing challenges in Britain.

The myth of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Thanks, Lindie and Milli!)

The success of roof-top gardening in Mexico City.

How to eat like the president of the US.

The history of the jaffa orange.

The Twinkie: can it survive? And what are the alternatives?

The New Yorker takes on THAT review of Guy’s American Kitchen in Times Square.

Trish Deseine is excellent on chefs’ egos and why we should eat real.

Why we don’t have to drink eight glasses of water a day.

There are growing tensions around keeping chickens in Brooklyn.

The link between cooking and the evolution of the human brain.

Tan Twan Eng on street food in Penang.

This is incredible: sushi chefs battle sea monsters.

A cultural history of the spoon.

In praise of the English apple.

On Denis Papin.

What to do if your jam doesn’t set.

Nelson Mandela‘s favourite food.

Amazing anatomically-correct cakes.

When is a food truck more than a food truck?

The London restaurant Tube map.

Food-based idioms.

The history of toad-in-the-hole. (Thanks, Deva!)

A cheeseburger made out of leaves.

Fifty Shades of Chicken. (Thanks, Justin!)

Teabag tags.

An attempt to make cinnamon buns.

The chemistry behind food pairings. (Thanks, Raffaella!)

Stop de-seeding tomatoes.

Five $10 dinners.

Which are the best gins?

Cakes throughout American history.

Rothko paintings recreated with rice.

Exploding fraudulent ketchup.

Old Finnish drink labels.

Are food bloggers pushovers?

Are there any decent substitutes for truffles?

The slow spread of Vegemite.

These are courtesy of my mum:

An ancient recipe.

Is the food movement real?

The dinners of old London.

How are hot dogs made?

Toothbutter.

The vast scale of counterfeit food in Italy.

Forensic scientists battle food fraud.

Food Links, 24.10.2012

How healthy is raw milk?

Pesticides, bees, and governments’ unwillingness to introduce regulations.

A debate on the origins of opposition to GM crops.

Global warming has changed the fishing industry in southern Greenland.

Are lower pesticide residues a reason to buy organic?

Arguments in favour of national grain reserves.

Reclaiming our seed culture.

The world faces a steep decline in fish stocks.

Colin Tudge on small farms.

Using mushrooms to build cities.

How diseases are spread via the food chain.

Pigs are in crisis.

American fast food chains that don’t support the Republicans.

How long do you need to work before you can afford to buy a beer?

Crispin Odey, banker, plans on building a neo-Classical chicken coop.

Why fish need exercise.

The US election and the snack onslaught.

Crisis in the Greek food and olive oil industries.

Nathaniel Bacon’s ‘Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit‘.

What is okonomiyaki? (Thanks, Mum!)

On misophonia. (I have this. It’s hell.)

The world’s fastest one-litre engine vehicle runs on cheese.

Ladies who drink.

The extraordinary invention of tabs on cans.

Vagina cupcakes.

Food typography.

Pumpkin pancakes.

Three burning questions about salt.

A new blog on pickling and preserving.

Cheese smuggling in Canada.

Christina McDermott on favourite food blogs.

A brief history of drinking and reading.

Delicious dishes with revolting names.

Berger & Wyse’s food-themed cartoons.

What’s the best shot for photographing food?

On dashi.

Bologna’s new ice cream museum. (Thanks, Catherine!)

Sam Woollaston cooks along to Nigellissima.

Cows respond to the Tim Noakes diet.

A recipe for pudding in verse, from Jane Austen’s family.

How to keep spices fresh.

Fashionable cafes in Paris.

How to eat breakfast cereal.

A recipe for challah.

Vogue plans to open a cafe in Dubai.

A reading of the ingredients in Kraft Dinner. (Thanks, Kelsey!)

Green Revolutions

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate generated by a study done by a research team at the University of Caen in France. Last month, they published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, in which they alleged that rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified maize and exposed to the herbicide Roundup – also produced by Monsanto – over the course of a lifetime, developed tumours and suffered multiple organ damage.

Terrible photographs of some alarmingly lumpy rats circulated around the internet, and it seemed that the green movement’s vociferous opposition to GM crops was vindicated. But almost as soon as the study’s findings were announced, doubts – around the validity of the research itself and the way it had been communicated – began to emerge.

Not only have similar, more rigorous tests, demonstrated that GM crops had no impact on health, but, as the New Scientist reported:

the strain of rat the French team used gets breast tumours easily, especially when given unlimited food, or maize contaminated by a common fungus that causes hormone imbalance, or just allowed to age.

Moreover:

Five of the 20 control rats – 25 per cent – got tumours and died, while 60 per cent in ‘some test groups’ that ate GM maize died. Some other test groups, however, were healthier than the controls.

…the team claims to see the same toxic effects both with actual Roundup, and with the GM maize – whether or not the maize contained any actual herbicide. It is hard to imagine any way in which a herbicide could have identical toxic effects to a gene tweak that gives the maize a gene for an enzyme that actually destroys the herbicide.

This research isn’t entirely without value: it could suggest that even the smallest dose of weed killer or GM maize has the potential to cause physiological harm.

But even this conclusion is undermined by the circumstances in which the study was produced. The research team at Caen is open about its opposition to GM crops; and the anti-GM organisation which orchestrated the publicity around the release of the report, refused to allow journalists to consult other scientists about the paper.

As we’re right to be suspicious of studies undertaken by scientists affiliated to industry – the implications of which Ben Goldacre explores in his latest book on Big Pharma – so we must question the motives, however noble they may be, of this research team funded by anti-GM groups.

What I found so interesting about the response to the study was the vehemence of the anti-GM crop lobby. Like the debates around nuclear energy and, even, animal testing, it seems to me that the strength of feeling – on both sides – has a tendency to shut down all reasonable discussion. I was appalled when, earlier this year, a group of anti-GM activists threatened to destroy a field of GM wheat planted by scientists at the publicly-funded Rothamsted Research. Their work aimed partly to reduce pesticides sprayed on crops.

On the other hand, though, pro-GM scientists, economists, and others seem to be too quick to label those with – legitimate – concerns about the genetic modification of plants and animals as ‘anti-science.’ In an article from 2000, Norman Borlaug argued:

Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. It is sad that some scientists, many of whom should or do know better, have also jumped on the extremist environmental bandwagon in search of research funds. …

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement that has taken place over the past 40 years. This movement has led to legislation to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity. It is ironic, therefore, that the platform of the antibiotechnology extremists, if it were to be adopted, would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity.

His point is that GM crops have the potential to end world hunger. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner credited with originating the Green Revolution during the 1950s and 1960s, Borlaug was in a position to argue– with some validity – that selective plant breeding had helped to feed a world of, now, seven billion people.

In 1943, concerned about the link between food shortages and political upheaval – particularly as the Cold War loomed – the Rockefeller Foundation began sponsoring research into the development of new drought-resistant and higher yielding plant species in Mexico.

Focussing on wheat, maize, and rice, Borlaug and other scientists affiliated with the programme cross-bred higher-yielding species. These new seeds were distributed at first in Mexico, India, and the Philippines. It’s difficult to underestimate the impact of this research, as Gordon Conway explains:

Cereal yields, total cereal production and total food production in the developing countries all more than doubled between 1960 and 1985. Over the same period their population grew by about 75 per cent. As a result, the average daily calorie supply in the developing countries increased by a quarter, from under 2,000 calories per person in the early 1960s to about 2,500 in the mid-80s, of which 1,500 was provided by cereals.

The Green Revolution has made it possible to feed a population of seven billion people. But it had substantial drawbacks. Conway writes that the ‘potential’ of the Green Revolution crops

could only be realised if they were supplied with high quantities of fertiliser and provided with optimal supplies of water. As was soon apparent, the new varieties yielded better than the traditional at any level of fertiliser application, although without fertiliser they sometimes did worse on poor soils. Not surprisingly, average rates of application of nitrogen fertilisers, mostly ammonium sulphate and urea, doubled and redoubled over a very short period.

We know now that we need a new Green Revolution – one which is not as heavily reliant on water, and which does not poison and destroy ecosystems. There’s a certain logic, then, to many activists’ arguments that it’s ‘science’ which is to blame for present food insecurity: that a return to small-scale peasant farming offers the best means of supplying food to an ever-growing population.

This suspicion of ‘science’ – whatever we may mean by this – is nothing new. During the 1970s, for instance, the green movement emerged partly in response to concerns about the implications of the Green Revolution for human health, biodiversity, and water supplies. Much of this early environmentalism advocated a return to nature, and a rejection of technology.

I haven’t made up my mind about the usefulness or otherwise of GM crops, but I hesitate over the whole-hearted embrace of ‘traditional’ methods of farming. It’s worth remembering that pre-industrial agriculture required the majority of the world’s population to be involved in food production in order to stave off hunger. Now, in developed nations, this number has plummeted to only a couple of per cent. In sub-Saharan Africa, seventy per cent of the population remains in engaged in agriculture, although this is also likely to decline.

Better technology and higher-yielding plant varieties have freed up the majority of the world’s population to do other forms of work. The world has changed a great deal since the eighteenth century.

What concerns me more, though, are the businesses which push GM crops – those which are at the receiving end of European and African bans on the planting of genetically modified wheat, maize, and other plants. Monsanto and Cargill are currently the target of a campaign to end the patenting of seeds – making them cheaper and more freely available to small farmers in the developing world.

These two companies, in particular, have a growing control over the world’s food supply. Not only do they own seed patents, but they provide pesticides and fertilisers. Cargill produces meat and grows grain – in fact, no one knows how much grain it has stored in its silos. Given that Cargill and the commodities trader Glencore have both admitted that their profits have increased as a result of the drought in the US and the resultant rise in food prices around the world, it’s exceptionally worrying that these organisations have so much control over our food chain.

What the GM debate reveals is a set of complex and shifting attitudes around the relationship between food, farming, and science – and around how we define what is ‘natural’. Instead of rejecting the potential benefits of GM crops out of hand, I think it would be wise to encourage more research into their implications both for human health, and for the environment. Moreover, I think we need to scrutinise and hold to account big businesses like Monsanto, Glencore, and Cargill. They represent a far greater threat to our ability to feed ourselves.

Further Reading

Norman Borlaug, ‘Ending World Hunger: The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry,’ Plant Physiology, vol. 124 (Oct. 2000), pp. 487-490.

Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution (London: Penguin, 1997).

Joseph Cotter, Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002 (New York: Praeger, 2003).

John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Himmat Singh, Green Revolutions Reconsidered: The Rural World of Contemporary Punjab (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 31.08.2011

On Spanish pigs.

What to drink with your meal if you’re teetotal.

Where are the undernourished?

This infographic demonstrates beautifully that healthy food tends to be more expensive than sugary, salty snack food.

Chocolate is good for your heart.

Tom Philpott reviews Nick Cullather‘s The Hungry World, a new history of the Green Revolution.

The dangers of ‘detox’.

On the famine in Somali: It’s the Politics…Stupid.

Transforming fridges into cinemas.

The rise of street food in Britain.

Are vegetables losing their nutrients?

Mark Bittman discusses US legislation around salmonella.

A Swedish man splits atoms in his kitchen. I think this is glorious. And this is his blog which is named, of course, Richard’s Reactor.

On the rise of the ‘super insects’ which are resistant to the pesticides which the evil empire Monsanto markets alongside its seeds.

The tricks of food photography (thanks Isabel!).

How far would you travel for amazing food?

Is eating well and healthily always expensive?