Vanishing Bees and Industrial Agriculture

***note - this began as a comment in the latest Open Thread but quickly grew beyond, so I mad e it a diary entry

There have been many proposed causes for the recent vanishing bees problem. Cell phones, powerlines, mites, fungus, virus, lack of genetic diversity, etc. If I had to guess, the bee scientists and research funding will discover the cause and develop a cure, eventually saving the honeybee. Eventually, the cure will cause a larger problem and our agriculture system will slowly teeter towards collapse leading to the eventual starvation of many around the world. These periodic die-offs and diseases inflicted upon various industrial agricultural products is already resulting in famines around the world. As our population increases and our soils get less fertile and leached with more chemicals, while our foods we grow in them are less nutritious, a prediction of more famines and disease in the future seems hardly a risky or unsubstantiated prediction.

For those who believe in the market as the only predictor, the fact that chemical and pharmaceutical companies are among the most profitable in the world demonstrates that even investors are betting on more health problems in the future and that the market will reward companies that produce more temporary solutions leading to greater long-term problems. A guarantee of long-term profits if there has ever been one.

The more one looks into the industrial bee industry the more one should realize that what is currently plaguing bees is a problem that was foreseeable. Bees from Minnesota (and other northern climates) are shipped to California in the winter to pollinate crops growing there, because the California bee industry has been in decline for years and is unable to support the production of its agricultural crops with its bee industry alone. These bees in northern climates would be hibernating in the winter if allowed to stay in climates.

Bees are fed high fructose corn syrup so all of the honey can be harvested and not necessarily only the surplus the hive produces. Plastic honey combs are used to create greater efficiency in hive building and bees live in these plastic surroundings year round over their entire lives. Queen bees are artificially inseminated (an amazing technological feat that is awe-inspiring) to grow more queen bees to sell as commodities. More and more chemicals are spread in hives to reduce exposure to fungus's, mites, and virus's. finally, superbees have been produced that are genetically similar for high yields of honey and lower their susceptibility to currently known bee illnesses.  All of this is done to increase yields that demonstrate the success of industrial bee keeping techniques, while slowly reducing the bee colonies ability to withstand new diseases and the elements and create the possibility of periodic massive die-offs that effect the modern human food chain.

Bees are not the only industrial agricultural product that is susceptible to the problem of die-offs. Holstein cows are fed high protein feed, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics and bred to produce yields of milk that are 2-3 times greater than normal (yes, we can feed the world and the poor - yippee). Meanwhile instead of the normal lifespan of Holsteins of around twenty years with an average amount of calves birthed during a lifetime of around 9, the industrial Holstein average lifespan is between 3-4 years and averages 0.9 calves in its life. Antibiotics and hormones in our milk may be creating antibiotic resistant bacteria and causing increasing health problems in human populations. I should emphasize may for those who are only interested in proof from the sciences funded through grants by the chemical and agricultural giants.

Holstein cows and bees are just two of countless examples we can look at that demonstrate the amazing yields industrial agriculture can produce, yet can also produce large scale problems as a result - die-offs among them. We have all heard of the recent e-coli and spinach scare and also mad-cow disease, bird-flus, etc. These scares are becoming routine and result from the successes of industrial agriculture. Whether we can continue to find cures for new problems in the future remains to be seen.

What should be obvious to most of us is considered fear mongering by the skeptics. There is a right way to grow food that is not measured by yields. I will use a baseball analogy that I hope sheds some light. Analogies are not science, so I apologize to those who have little appreciation for storytelling, poetry, or the arts and are only impressed with what science can prove or discover as a cause.

There is a right way to play baseball that is not measured by statistics such as home runs, batting averages, slugging percentages, etc. Some baseball players have amazing statistics and abilities, but they never learned to play the right way. They don't run out ground balls to the infield. They don't emphasize their role in playing team defense. They run the bases poorly. They show up their teammates both on and off the field. Many of these wrong ways to play don't show up in the statistics, but to those who observe the game on a routine basis that is greater than the casual fan who follows box scores and stats, the players who don't play the right way stick out like sore thumbs.

I suggest that there is a right way to grow food that is not measured by yields or the price we pay in our grocery stores, but rather is obvious to those who visit farms that operate in sustainable ways and treat their soils, plants and animals in caring ways and with the respect they deserve. The right way of raising food may not produce greater yields for the markets, but they can sustain large and healthy local populations if allowed to operate on scales that do not harm local habitats. Food raised the right way also tastes better and is better for you.

I also, at risk of further alienating myself from the scientifically inclined, believe that food raised the right way leads to a less anxious and angry population of humans less inclined to confrontation and war. Its a karma deal that requires nothing more or less than faith as proof. I don't see how this faith could be in any way harmful, so I choose to believe it whole heartedly. Eating the mass produced chickens and beef that is produced in confinement lots where they don't ever see the light of day and are held in small cages and stalls produces anxious and stressed out animals. When we eat this food, that anger and stress is transfered to us. I have no proof other than what I observe around me. Take a field trip to an organic farm or Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) farm and look around at the animals. Also, take a look at the people working there and their stress and anxiety levels. These individuals have many problems to work out in a day and at times stress is there that is common among any community. The daily stress is different in quality, however and anxiety levels are not the same as one sees in a typical workplace. All of this is qualitative and not measurable, but obvious to those who pay attention to such things, just as one can see there is a right way to play baseball if one looks long and hard enough.

Life is a mystery and the biological process will always remain mysterious in the face of scientific advances. A respect for this mystery should be fostered in our society that is greater than our respect for those earning profits and for the prices we pay at the register or pump. Cheap food prices mean low wages for many farmers is just one example of the faulty reasoning from those who seem so impressed by with what little they pay at the grocery store while never stepping foot on a farm.

Every one can be rightly impressed with the population that our industrial agricultural system feeds and the prices we can obtain our food in this country for. However, if you don't monitor the food that you put in your body and how it is produced your individual health will suffer. There are negative effects that result from the techniques we employ to produce food on a mass scale. The vanishing bees are just the latest of these large-scale problems resulting from these techniques. You can choose to ignore these problems and only focus on prices and yields this system produces, but you (and we as a society) do it at your own peril.

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    Some interesting points there peaches, (none / 0) (#1)
    by gollo on Wed Apr 25, 2007 at 02:24:39 PM EST
    I think the problem with the bees is a good example of the problems with evolution by unnatural selection as opposed to natural selection.

    In evolution by natural selection, the ways of a gene being 'dead' are numerous.  The ways of a gene being 'alive' are less than the ways of being dead, but the random mutation of the genes in the organism sometimes provide advantages for the organism to counteract the ways of the organism being dead.

    For example, in the case of the bees, they are involved in an evolutionary arms race with a certain parasite.  The traits that the bees have for not being killed by the parasite are passed on to the next generation, thus meaning for the parasite to survive, it evolves traits that are advantageous to itself in being alive, and continuing its parasitical relationship with the bees.

    In a relatively balanced evolutionary arms race, neither side gains a significant advantage over the other, and the numbers of each side remain relatively stable.

    However for a balanced evolutionary arms race, there must be a big enough gene pool in each side to enable the chance of a random mutation that is significant enough to benefit the species.

    The problem with evolution by unnatural selection is that the bees in this instance are bred for certain traits, and the collective gene pool is reduced.  This can cause what is known as positive feedback

    The ways of the bees being dead is increased, not just by the parasite evolving, but by other means of the bees being dead, such as pesticides and other changes in the environment, whereas the ways of the bees not being dead are drasticly reduced by the dwindling size of the bee gene pool in comparison.

    In industrial agriculture, the gene pool of many organisms are reduced by the artificial selection process of unnatural selection, because this is much quicker (and more profitable) than natural selection.  The problem is that one little change in the ecosystem can have drastic and unintended amplified consequences in the future.

    The only two solutions that I can think of to this problem is learning how to stop a positive feedback loop in industrial agriculture, or to dispence with industrial agriculture and let nature evolve without intervention.

    I can't really see the second solution happening, due to the amounts of money that would be lost, so our only hope is the first solution. Some interesting ideas can be found here.

    Thanks (none / 0) (#2)
    by Peaches on Wed Apr 25, 2007 at 04:14:59 PM EST
    for pointing out the differences between natural and unnatural selection and how it can lead to positive feedback loop. I think we may come up with solutions to some positive feedback loops, but I would not feel comfortable with the solutions and the resulting effects. All of our technological fixes have consequences, so I think I favor your second solution with some modifications. We can work with nature and will always interfere with the evolutionary process since we are also a part of nature. The important point is to attempt to be ONE with certain habitats and co-evolve with them. In my opinion, we have to have some reverence for the land we are living on and off of and learn to respect what it provides us as well as the other inhabitants of this land. This has to be done locally by owners of this land whether private, public or communal.

    My point is not that we don't want to have high yields and large quantities of produce leading to lower prices in the marketplace, but rather that these are not the only consideration we take in when producing our food. Many of the things we need to consider are not measurable, but remain mysterious to their origins and reflect the quality of our relationship with the land and fellow creatures supported on it.  

    I agree with your sentiments, (none / 0) (#3)
    by gollo on Wed Apr 25, 2007 at 07:24:55 PM EST
    but the problem as I see it is that for a big business the money is in mass production, and people at the moment are not prepared to pay slightly more in a big enough number to encourage them to be more environmentally aware.

    It can be compared to the climate change debate; it's cheaper for a big manufacturing company to keep using oil than developing a new technology.  The only incentive for the company to change course is when its customers are demanding the change, or when a regulator produces incentives and pressure.  Big businesses don't like regulatory pressure, and so pay polititians who agree with them, to ensure less regulation. (and also why they propaghandize to gain public support: i.e 'global warming is a hoax' etc)

    In this case, the big companies vs small companies is an example of a positive feedback loop, because the small companies have a much greater chance of 'not being' than the big ones, and the only way to control a positive (or negative) feedback loop, is a regulator (as in a governing body or in the abstract mathematical sense).

    This or course leads us into the age old battle against 'liberal' and 'conservative'!

    Hope that makes sense! all this theory and biology is explained really well in Richard Dawkins 'The Blind Watchmaker' (another reason for the conservatives to hate him!

    And, I agree with your sentiments (none / 0) (#4)
    by Peaches on Thu Apr 26, 2007 at 10:19:00 AM EST
    But, I also see and am part of a movement that is operating underneath the radar. This movement of organic farms is not only growing among farmers, but consumers as well. It may not be able to challenge big business in size, but it is the hope for survival once the positive feedback loop leads to a collapse crippling the mass production industry. When this collapse occurs is anyones guess and I am not in the field of prediction. As one individual I just make the choice to have as much information as possible about the food I put into my family's and my body.

    I have a limited grasp of systems, but from what I have been exposed to it dose seem to offer a better description than traditional linear science and its search for truth in simple systems where a single cause leads to a single effect. This type of thinking is what leads most people to be in support of industrial agriculture and mass production. Systems theory and the science of complex systems gives a more accurate description of where linear thinking can break down. It is more useful in describing real world systems such as our global food supply.

    The science of complex theories is useful for countering those who like models and wish to continue the paradigm placing humans outside of nature due to our cognitive abilities. iow, systems theories still leave us with th illusion that we are in ultimate control over our environment and can control nature if we push the right buttons.

    I seek an awareness that cannot be described by theories and models. This awareness still makes use of cognitive abilities and experiments with     technologies and techniques to learn about the land and grow communities. It constantly tinkers with new approaches and refines an approach that is unique to a location and an environment while making use of information gained through personal experience and discussion both within and outside of communities. It is not in search of the ultimate truth or the best technique for growing food or living on the land, because there is no such thing as an ultimate truth or even a Truth that we can get close to. As a co-evolving member of a community or habitat, living conditions constantly change and the best way to live must change with it. So crops and rotations are constantly changing along with techniques that are  sustainable and don't deplete the resources of the local environment over time. It begins with an awareness, not with a description. It is is many ways a more spiritual than a knowledgable/informational approach. Awareness can  only be obtained by living close to the land and not in a classroom where theories, descriptions and models are discussed.

    Here's an article... (none / 0) (#5)
    by desertswine on Thu Apr 26, 2007 at 02:54:03 PM EST
    about a bee fungus.

    The results are "highly preliminary"

    environmental list-serve (none / 0) (#6)
    by conchita on Mon Apr 30, 2007 at 12:11:21 AM EST
    in case you are not aware of this already, there is an environmental/energy list-serve that has grown out of the dkos community.  you may find some of the diaries published there interesting and helpful.  and i hope you will consider posting your excellent diary on the bees to this list and on dkos.  there are many on the list who would appreciate reading it.