Bees matter. We need to protect them, before it’s too late

Did you know that 40 percent of our food is thrown into landfills every year? That shocking statistic comes to us courtesy of the number crunchers at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Believe it or not, that means we’re throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion worth of nutritious and not-so-nutritious junk food. Imagine just for a moment the size of that fetid pile.  Imagine, too, that while we Americans waste almost half our food supply, 800 million people go hungry every day and two billion—a number representing more than one-third of the population of the planet—suffer from malnourishment.

Is it likely we’ll wake up one morning and discover we’ve experienced en masse an epiphany of compassion and responsibility, or we’ll suddenly decide to curb our profligate ways? I doubt it. Still, our wasteful food habits may be changing in the not so distant future. And you can bet that change won’t happen voluntarily. It may be foisted upon us unintentionally by some of the world’s largest corporations— Bayer (Germany), Monsanto (St. Louis), and Syngenta (Switzerland).  Together, the big bad three produce a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids and other insecticides, pesticides, and fungicides that scientists believe are creating a toxic witches’ brew that’s killing bee populations across the globe and threatening our food supply.

And how big is the industry that produces and distributes these poisons?  In the U.S. alone the industry is worth more than $12.5 billion annually, and there are approximately 350,000 pesticide products produced and used in our food supply, in our home gardens, and on our greener-than-green weed-free lawns and golf courses.

Do you feel your progressive antennae beginning to twitch?  You should. After all, mentioning positive social change in the same sentence as the corporate world is surely anathema to the progressive spirit. But like it or not, here’s what could happen if the steady increase in chemical controls in agriculture isn’t halted. We’ll be forced to follow the path of Southern Sichuan, China, where pears and apples have been hand pollinated since the 1980s, when the uncontrolled use of pesticides killed off the province’s honeybee population.  If that’s the future of agriculture in the U.S., you can be sure the diversity of our food supply will shrink, and with the attendant price spikes, we might finally be forced to curb our wasteful ways.

How important are pollinating bees to our food supply?

One-third of our food supply (or one in every three mouthfuls) depends on bee pollination.  Do you crave blueberry pancakes or strawberry jam on toast? Bees are trucked in to pollinate Maine’s blueberry crop and Florida’s fields of blueberries and strawberries. Snacking on almonds for their health benefits? It takes 1.5 million bee colonies to pollinate California’s 750,000 acres of almond trees. Do you look forward to grandpa’s hot-out-of-the-oven, crusty apple pie every autumn? The quintessential American pie and the apple orchards of New York and Washington states might become a nostalgic memory if bee die-off isn’t reversed.

And how seriously has the bee population shrunk?  The number of hives in the U.S. is the lowest in fifty years. Since 1990 25 percent of the managed bee population has disappeared. This year in the U.S. alone annual colony loss is estimated at 40  to 90 percent (depending on location) of the bee population.

Bees shmees. They’re just a nuisance, so who cares?

Bees are about so much more than just the occasional painful encounter in the flowerbed.  It’s time to think seriously about what will happen when our bee-loud places go silent.  Colony-collapse disorder, or bee die-off, represents one of those connect-the-dots moments when we need to think about the big picture.  In order to see the big picture, you sometimes have to start small and personal.

And you can’t get more personal than the foods you love. Visualize some of the seasonal ingredients in your perfect summer meal. Maybe it would include a salad of sliced avocados topped with sweet spring onions and some almonds.  Slices of run-down-your-chin fuzzy peaches.  A bowl of deep red cherries with some sugary watermelon slices stuck in along the edge.  Hefty servings of moist apple-walnut-cinnamon layer cake or an old-fashioned blueberry buckle.

What would summer be without such pleasures to look forward to?  Imagine you could no longer afford to buy about one-third of the foods you now consume, including more than forty fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains. And shall we even dare to mention that most sacred of foodstuffs—chocolate—and how bees pollinate the cacao beans that feed our indulgence?

When the bees disappear and they’re no longer around to do the pollinating work for us, the price of food will skyrocket.  One group, the British Beekeepers Association, has considered the consequences. If the British bee population were to suddenly disappear and people were to take over the task of hand pollinating, it’s estimated that Britain would need a workforce of thirty million dexterous individuals.

Will we muster the political will to save the bees and preserve our food supply?

The story of an earlier pesticide, DDT, is instructive.  After its introduction in 1939, DDT became the most widely used pesticide in the world.  It took twenty years, but  concerns about human health and damaging biological effects finally resulted in the banning of DDT in eighty-six countries—not including the U.S.  The U.S., always a regulatory laggard because of the outsized influence of the agribusiness lobby, followed suit in 1972. Today it looks like history might be repeating itself.

This month, reflecting concerns about the danger of colony collapse, fifteen of the twenty-seven members of the European Union voted to pass a two-year, EU-wide ban on the use of three neonicotinoids manufactured by Bayer and Syngenta while additional studies on their impact on bees can be conducted.

Commercial beekeepers in the U.S., fearing for the viability of their industry, are starting to take action as well. The beekeepers recently filed an emergency petition with the EPA to suspend the use of pesticides linked to honey bee deaths.  Their action followed upon the conclusions of more than thirty peer-reviewed studies linking the class of neonicotinoids that attack insects’ nervous systems to the shrinking numbers of bees.

In July Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the Save America’s Pollinators Act (H.R. 2692).  The act calls for suspension of the use of neonicotinoids until full scientific review can demonstrate no harmful impact on pollinators.

These efforts to rein in the most harmful effects of the industrial chemical complex are commendable.  But will it prove to be too little, too late? When the bees are no longer around to do their work, the fruits and vegetables we take for granted will become so pricey that only the wealthiest among us will be able to enjoy them.  Can’t you just see it?  A marketing campaign in the bee-deprived future might feature labels that declare “Food for the 1%.” That’s a cure for our wasteful ways I’m sure none of us will welcome.

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