Pesticides and Unintended Consequences

Pesticide DriftWe’ve already mentioned the fine documentary released early this summer More Than Honey, a film that looks at the behavior of bees as well as issues and consequences behind colony collapse disorder that’s sweeping the world. As the movie states, bee activity is responsible for a third of the food we eat. Losing them would have impacts well beyond the loss of some fruit. It could mean a complete change in the way we live. The movie shows us an example of a place where bees have already vanished and the consequences that followed.

The place is China. Seems that Mao Tzedog before his death in 1976 decided that a plague of sparrows was putting a large dent in grain production. So in the kind of short-sighted, ill-conceived wisdom that’s apparently shared by Chinese dictators and American corporate agricultural CEOs, Mao called for the elimination of sparrows. The killing of the sparrows released a swarm of insects, a problem that affected agriculture much more than the damage done by the birds. So massive spraying programs were instituted. The spraying not only killed harmful insects, it killed beneficial ones as well, including pollinators. Without bees, Chinese crops blossomed but didn’t produce. The solution? Hand pollination.

The movie depicts the packaging and selling of pollen, now obviously big business even conducted on a small scale. The pollen is then brought to the crop blossoms and applied manually. We see dozen of Chinese workers doing the tedious work of inseminating blossoms. Though the movie provides no statistics on its effectiveness or price, we can only imagine that it greatly increases the cost of growing produce, even at slave wages. If only Mao had the foresight to see the consequences of his decision.

Imagine this same process — pollination by hand — applied to the United States in a place where the bulk of American produce is grown: California’s Central Valley. The movie shows us how hundreds, if not thousands, of bee hives are taken from North Dakota to the Central Valley each spring to pollinate millions of almond trees. The air is alive with bees when the almond trees are in beautiful blossom. How many farm workers would be required, citizens or not, legal or not, to accomplish what the bees do in a couple weeks?

The irony here is that spraying of the almond trees for fungus begins even before the bees leave. Even if the spray doesn’t directly kill the bees –there’s a poignant segment where a bee working a blossom is fogged in the chemical and begins to struggle, vainly, for its life — the surviving bees bring the chemical back to the hives where it kills its brood. The bee keeper, who has already been heard to describe the bee activity as the sound of “fresh printed money,” shrugs it off and says its part of the business.

But of course, it’s more than that. While the movie cites a variety of causes for the rise of colony collapse disorder — pesticides the Varroa mite, invasive fungus — it does demonstrate how the exposure to chemicals weakens the bees, leaving them vulnerable to mites, disease, and other invasive problems. The bee keeper also makes another revealing statement: no honeybee in North America can survive without antibiotics. Small, private beekeepers might disagree, but the fact that commercial honeybees are dosed with medicine probably also contributes to their vulnerable health.

It’s easy while watching the film to start drawing conclusions from the fate of the honeybees. Are we humans making ourselves vulnerable by continuing to use pesticides, herbicides and other harmful chemicals in amounts that can’t even be measured? Are the rises in certain cancers, endocrine diseases, asthma and allergies, brain-function disorders, birth defects, and fertility problems linked to agricultural chemicals?

There’s no evidence! shout those who profit from their use. But on the other side of that coin is a warning: there’s no proof that they don’t. We know that many of these products cause cancers, endocrine and reproductive problems, and other troubles for lab animals. What are the unintended consequences of their use on humans? And if we know beyond a suspicion, that lawn sprays and agricultural chemicals can do harm, are those consequences still unintended? Just asking. Somewhere Mao Tzedong is laughing at us.

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