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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Plausible Deniability, White Collar Bio-Crime, and The Precautionary Principle

If there isn't one already, we ought to have something like a "Law of Imperfect Information" which states that:

Willingness to utilize imperfect information to justify a course of action is directly proportional to the amount of money that can be made from the course of action.  

And, its corollary, the "Law of Scientific Insufficiency" which states that:

If enough  money is being made on a given activity, no amount of scientific evidence demonstrating damage resulting from the activity will be sufficient to stop the activity. 

Recently (new) news stories have surfaced describing research into the effects of neonicotinoid class pesticides on bee populations, both domesticated and wild.  The research by Dr. Jeffrey Pettis--which itself has been around for a few years--shows that undetectable amounts of neonicotinoid class pesticides render honeybees more susceptible to other threats such as nosema, mites, etc.  Moreover, the same poisons (largely produced by Bayer) have long-term, cumulative effects on the creatures they impact.

Long before that study, multiple other scientists cautioned that neonicotinoids are indeed bad news for bees at detectable levels of contamination.  In at least one case, responsible officials (not here in the United States) actually stopped usage of the pesticides and--get this--watched local bee populations rebound.

But, stretching back even further to the horizon of sanity, many ordinary non-scientists asked how it was possible we might believe that dumping huge quantities of insecticide into the environment would not have an adverse impact upon bees.  They didn't get a lot of play.

Understanding how big the market for these poisons is goes a long way towards explaining why.  In 2009, Bayer sold about $269 million dollars worth of Clothianidin, one of the primary brand names under which neonicotinoids are marketed.  Since 2003 in the US, Clothianidin has been widely used on corn, soybeans, wheat, canola, beets and other food crops.  In the United States last year, about 92 million acres of corn, 77 million acres of soybeans, and 58 million acres of wheat were grown, a significant portion of them with the aid of Clothianidin.  In other words, we're talking about a lot of momentum  This is the "Law of Scientific Insufficiency" in action.

If you look into the details around how the insufficiency law plays out, things get ugly.  In a 2007 memo, for example, EPA scientists warned the agency that for Clothianidin "estimated risk quotient (RQ) values exceed the endangered species level of concern for acute risk ( RQ2 0 . 1 ) to birds and acute and chronic risk to birds and mammals."  Despite the warnings, the EPA approved Clothianidin for continued widespread use.  Two years later, in 2009, when confronted with the mounting evidence surrounding Clothianidin usage, the EPA reconfirmed ongoing registration of the substance.

Knowing a little bit more about Clothianidin in particular (and neonicotinoids in general) also tells you something about how badly distorted things are.  Neonicotinoids were originally developed for a couple of specific reasons.  First, the apparent effect they have on vertebrates and mammals in particular is minimal.  In other words, while deadly to insects, visible effects on creatures that look more like we do are limited.  In this way, neonicotinoids behave just like the 50 foot wide "idiot strips" of trees clear-cutters here in Oregon leave along major roadways to hide the fact of the devastation they're wreaking from passersby unlikely to venture any deeper into what used to be the forest.

At this point you should be wondering about the EPA memo again.  The memo specifically cited danger to birds and mammals associated with Clothianidin usage.  Those are supposed to be the families of creatures  for which neonicotinoids are safe.  But, no such luck.  We already know it's bad for insects.  That's why Bayer made it.   Basically, it's bad news all around.  We lost our idiot strip....but we just keep on keeping on. Cynicism on an industrial scale.

The second major reason neonicotinoids were developed is that while nicotine itself has been used as an insecticide for about two centuries, it breaks down quickly and loses its effectiveness.  Neonicotinoids provide a "solution" to that problem because they persist in the environment for much (much) longer.  So, in the Orwellian logic of industrial agriculture, we win by permanently poisoning the biosphere.  Persistence coupled with regular use--such as yearly planting--means accumulation.  Accumulation means game over....unless you stop it.

There's more.  The way that Clothianidin is applied directly contributes to the idiot strip effect.  Rather than spraying or dusting it on (practices which almost always attract bad press), Clothianidin is applied as a coating to seeds prior to planting.  As such, people and communities present where Clothianidin is used mostly have no idea what's going on.  Unfortunately, the fact that it's applied to seeds doesn't make it any better for bees or other creatures.  A massive 2008 bee die-off in Germany which killed two-thirds of the bees in the Baden-Wurttemberg region, for example, was traced back to seed coating usage of Clothianidin.  Remarkably, Bayer claimed that the carnage was the result of misapplication of its product and that further claimed (successfully, at least as far as the EPA is concerned) that Clothianidin remains safe for bees and the rest of the environment.  Awesome.

Bayer's gyrations reveal one of the confounding mechanisms by which toxic-creating companies reap huge profits while pushing off even more massive environmental costs onto the rest of the planet.  Understanding this mechanism also helps explain the Law of Scientific Insufficiency.  It works like this:  once one of these poisons is put into play commercially, the burden of proof for taking it back off the market goes way up.  Basically, you need something like a smoking gun involving detectable levels of the toxin in a dead subject along with a causal explanation which rules out all other possibilities.

Consider this in light of the more recent research on Clothianidin and honeybees done by Dr. Pettis at Purdue which found that even at undetectable levels the substance wreaked havoc on bee colonies.  Without detection, Bayer keeps its fig leaf and continues to operate under a shroud of plausible deniability.  Clearly monstrous in its consequences, this way of weighing the evidence is also problematic for a couple of logical reasons.  First of all, if a really effective toxin (Clothianidin) is created--one capable of generating "results" at extremely low concentrations--it's also harder to detect.  The smoking gun gets harder and harder to find.  In market terms, the incentive here is clearly to produce super toxic substances that cannot be traced.  Perfect poisons.

Second, while in most scientific inquiry the best available theory is judged to be explanatory of a given phenomenon, a totally different set of rules is used to gauge evidence for removing a rogue pesticide from the market.  As with Clothianidin, it's not enough that we have substantial evidence of bee impact and can't come up with a better theory.  We actually have to find something like proof-positive.  In this regard, it's interesting to note that when bringing a product to market, for the most part the logic of the market itself is much like that used by 'normal' science:  the best available solution wins.  Products are not compared against absolute standards when considered for release, mostly only against competing alternatives.  But, when it comes time to pull a product that's causing trouble, the rules change and the burden of proof becomes much higher.  The market, like a lot of scientific inquiry, doesn't do a very good job of recognizing absolute standards such as the value of life or other 'intangibles'.

The market for toxins also neatly raises the problem economists talk about in terms of  'externalities':  real costs associated with a product, but costs which are borne by parties not having anything to do with buying or selling the product, e.g. honeybees, children, the biosphere, etc.  Even when these costs (externalities) can be demonstrated, markets themselves provide no way for anyone to get 'paid' for them.

So, let's think about Clothianidin and honeybees again, now in terms of pollination.  Even considered in the narrow human-purposed terms of pollination, there is a demonstrable cost associated with honeybee die-off.  A 2008 study in South Africa, for example put the annual cost of alternative pollination in single South  African province at approximately $350 million.  That lone province produces an almost inconsequential fraction of the world's food supply.  No one knows what the extrapolated figure would really be for a global die-off of honeybees (a real possibility), but it's probably safe to say the number would range into the hundreds of billions annually.  So, in the logic of the market, Bayer's $269 million dollar annual sales of Clothianidin trump the possibility of annual losses a thousand times that large.

The situation around Clothianidin and bees is just one spectacular (though apparently not enough so to warrant action) example of the larger logic of industrial agriculture:  increasingly powerful technology is leveraged to force very focused crop productivity from bio-systems that are by any measure failing globally under the strain.  These power moves 'work' according to the logic of the marketplace, but only because their truly massive costs are both directly subsidized ($20 billion in the US alone annually) or pushed off onto the biosphere in the form of much larger externalities.

What this amounts to is a gargantuan, annually renewing, white collar, bio-crime caper.  Imperiling a species such as the honeybee is something that all of us (humans and other creatures) will suffer for.  We have a word for this:  genocide.  The crime is committed willfully and in plain daylight by highly educated and highly paid professionals working from the safety of laboratories and offices, both in private industry and in government agencies.  You could also call it terrorism on a scale that dwarfs any of the things that supposedly sent the U.S. to war for the last two decades in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, except that a big part of the crime itself involves making us all feel OK about things.

Beating this kind of crime isn't that complicated, but it's not easy either.  It will almost certainly involve substitution of current market logic by something more like the precautionary principle which states that:

If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.

But, such substitutions are unlikely to occur because we just get smarter about things.  These are crimes fundamentally enabled by huge concentrations of power working in spite of both scientific knowledge and--more importantly--common sense.  They're crimes carried out by the 1% mostly against the 99% or--more accurately considered in terms which include species other than just humans--the 99.999%.  And, make no mistake about it, these crimes are fundamentally enabled by expert manipulation of scientific evidence, laws, and enforcement efforts.

The fix is going to be in communities (gardens, bee clubs, parents, farmers, food lovers) learning to call this situation what it is and learning to defend themselves against and push back the massive encroachment of industrial insanity on the shelves of the vast majority of stores everywhere.  It will come through localization of economies and the assumption of personal responsibility for land bases and watersheds.

Nobody else is going to do it for us.

Monday, March 7, 2011

NEWSFLASH: Insecticides harm bees!

You'd think there are some things we'd not need five scientists and several studies for.  Apparently, this isn't one of them.  Yes, insecticides (especially when applied by the millions of pounds nationally) do indeed harm bees.

But, here's the good news:  if we quit using them, things get better.

How about that?

Hive Building Workday

Despite the dreary weather, bee season is just a flower-hop away and we'll soon be building another batch of hives in preparation for it.

This year we're building both Warre and Kenya-style top-bar hives of Western Red Cedar.  Cost of materials for a Kenya-style hives is around $60.  The Warre hives run about $75.

If you'd like a hive this year and are willing to lend a hand, please give email me at ASAP to get your order in.  I'll need to know no later than the end of this week to be able to help.

We'll likely start our  building efforts the following Sunday, March 20.  Once we finalize the order, I'll send a follow-on email out to nail down the time/date for building.

No particular skills other than enthusiasm are required to help out!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pressing Matters

The bees came through this year, surprisingly...even after the coolest and wettest summer I can remember in 20 years.  My hives yielded about 70lbs in all...very lovely, light colored honey which is now mostly pressed out and jarred up in my kitchen.

As the first real harvest season for me using top bar hives, extracting the honey proved to be something of an adventure.  I made the first run using (of all things) a hand-held potato ricer to press the honey out of the comb.  It was a slow, sticky, tiring process, one which prompted me to go in with my neighbors on a nice stainless steel fruit press.  That innovation proved vastly more efficient, especially after our technique came into line.

Our process was basically to put all the comb into a five gallon bucket and thoroughly mash it with a very large spoon to make a sort of thick soup of it all.  Then we ladled that into the press and slowly applied pressure to sieve the wax from the honey.  After pressing out all that we could, I rinsed the still very sweet wax in cold water and used that to make mead (results pending!).  Then I washed the wax again to clean it completely and set it aside to be melted down later for candles, salves, etc.

Pulling the honey from the hives this year was a real treat.  I was so happy to be able to do so without gearing up....relying instead on tuning into the bees, a little smoke, and just going slowly.  Didn't get a single sting across my two boxes or the other three I helped with.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Supers (sort of) and Swarms

This week we had a dollop of drama with one of our first year co-op hives when it decided to swarm.  

First year swarms are relatively uncommon, mainly because bees generally have plenty of space and supercedure swarms are rare for new (lively) queens.  (Come to think of it, all the queens I've known are lively.  Ahhh, but that doesn't belong in this blog.)

As we continue to explore the margins of relevance here, I'll also observe that the hive that swarmed was one that had been very generously fed this spring.  Feeding enables more rapid population growth.  Because the swarm was clearly a split (many bees remained in the old hive), I'm thinking they just plain ran out of space.

The swarm originally came out about a week ago, prompting the ever intrepid Sherry and Lise to ring me up on my cell phone as I was away for a few days, lollygagging in Portland on tedious business.  We (mostly they) managed a remote-control swarm capture and new hive installation.  There were ladders, ropes, saws, and exhibits of mad tree climbing involved in making the nab,  but in the end the bees had other dreams and promptly left the new box we'd prepared almost as soon as they were dumped in.

If the swarm was indeed a split as I suspect, that means this buzzing ball of bees was chock full of six-legged, airborne randiness:  virgin queens, hopeful drones, and all that hot stuff.  (Easy there, gentle readers!)  Putting this all together, I suppose its no wonder that they opted to stay out on the town a while longer than we had in mind.  

So, the bees disappeared for a few days...or so we think.  Yesterday a suspiciously similar sized swarm reappeared in a nearby tree whereupon we (the usual suspects, this time not on cell phones) made another nab and successfully planted them in a third hive alongside two existing co-op hive.  

Round two decision?  The winged throng elected to stay this time around (Sherry swears she caught a glimpse of the queen looking relaxed and having a cigarette...solid evidence in my book of a lucky drone and queen ready to settle down into the mind-numbing routine of laying upwards of 500 eggs a day) and now our co-op has increased by one hive.  That may sound like not much, but it represents a 10% boost in our overall hive small matter when you consider that Wall Street on average barely scores half that in a given year.

In spring, bees run out of space sometimes and as we've seen venture out to find better digs.  It's mostly a matter of population dynamics.  Prompted by this latest adventure, I visited three other hives (one of my own and two others), watched a bit, and then slipped a third super in betwixt the two already on the hive.  Hopefully no more swarms this season among our first-year hives.

Some of the signs (other than the blunt signal provided by our swarm!) that made me think another box was due  included lots of obviously food-bearing traffic in and out of the hive and, sometimes, in the evening/morning a 'beard' of bees on the front porch.  When weather is hot or humid, bees frequently park in alarming numbers on the front of their hives at night as a means of enabling better air circulation inside the hive for honey-drying purposes.  

This makes sense if you consider what goes on in a hive over the course of a day.  During daytime, a good portion of the bees are out in the field gathering nectar and pollen.  Inside the hive there's plenty of room as a result.  But bees come back inside at night (presumably to watch TV, just like us!) and that makes for crowded conditions. (Only room for so many sisters on the couch!)  On top of that, all of the fresh and very wet nectar brought in during the day needs drying at night.  So, space is both at a premium and acutely required in order to allow the miraculous bee breeze HVAC system to do its thing.  Hence, some bees adjourn to the porch to make room.  Fewer bee bodies in the comb.  More bee breeze.

I am reminded here of stories in my own family about my grandfather who as eldest of 19 children growing up hard on a Kansas farm was obliged to sleep out in a corn crib with one his brothers for a couple of winters.  I sleep out of doors several months each year here in our mild Oregon climate, but not in winter and this isn't Kansas either.

I meant to say something about the term 'supers' as it applies to our top-bar style of beekeeping here.  Strictly speaking, we don't 'super' (expand by adding to the top of our bee stacks) in the way we add to our hives.  Conventional (Langstroth) hives add to the top.  We insert in the middle or at the bottom of the stack instead.  

So, though I think we are super, we do not super.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bees In Wetsuits

This spring has been more than a little challenging for bees, especially new colonies.  Cool wet weather complicates matters greatly for new colonies, primarily because they have no honey stores of their own from the previous season upon which to rely for food when foraging isn't possible.  Without stores, bees have to get out and fly in order to eat and rain makes that hard.

Watching my bees this spring, I've learned a thing or two from them about opportunity.  Rain chases me indoors and dampens my spirits more than I'd like to admit.  When the drops stop falling, I look suspiciously at the sky and have to shake off my own sense of imprisonment before I venture out of doors.  Bees, meanwhile, practically leap out of the hive when then get half a chance.  They're off (on beelines) seeking whatever goodness they can find in whatever small sliver time has been granted. 

Seemingly, staying indoors is no easy solution for me or perhaps for bees either.  Cool weather challenges new colonies to heat their hive space sufficiently to raise brood and to make comb.  Bees need hive temperatures to stay in the 90's and are able to do so mainly using body friction/kinetic energy.  Small colonies have a tough time heating lots of open space.  Making comb is difficult in cold weather simply because wax is harder to manipulate.

Fortunately, all of our new co-op colonies seem to be doing very well despite our soggy weather.  Some of us have been feeding new colonies with sugar water.  Some not.  Both fed and not-fed hives seem to be thriving.  Most of the colonies have now grown into a second super and may even require a third this year once weather warms and the blackberry flower season fully opens.

The damp weather will decrease honey production this year, making it almost a certainty that our first year hives should be left with all of the honey they produce in order to safeguard the bees survival over the winter.

Swarms also seem to have been somewhat suppressed by the recent weather.  Personally, I've only seen two swarms this season, less than I'd expect.  We may see a run of late season swarms as weather warms up, but in most years the bulk of the swarms would have occurred already.

Yesterday I took my cues from my colonies, ceding outdoor territory only grudgingly during morning showers and running right back out when they stopped.  As I moved gravel and soil and raced to pack a week of chores into a day, I caught glimpses over my shoulder of my bees besting me at every turn.  Workers clustered at the hive door seemed impatient with drones hanging about on no particular mission.  They pushed their  lumbering and indolent brothers aside and bustled past back into the hive, time and again, with huge bags of pollen on their legs, right up until dark.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I'm Shocked! Shocked to Find That Bees Are Dying!

This week the USDA released the most recent results of this year's bee survey which revealed that 33% of all bee colonies under management perished in 2009.  The report sparked a brief flurry of news coverage (you can read some of these in the sidebar at right), but the stories were almost immediately and predictably eclipsed by breaking news regarding flooding in Tennessee, our Drill-Baby-Drill Drama off the Gulf Coast, Heidi Montag's most recent body work, and this morning a feature piece on the fattest cities in America.

I confess that I've never been able to understand why we call 'news' by that name.  Most of it is really old, or at least just unsurprising.  In Tennessee it rained a lot this spring.  The creeks and rivers came up as they have probably thousands of times and washed out whatever was in the way.  Off the Louisiana coast we punched a bunch of holes in the earth's crust for the purpose of releasing massive quantities of crude oil.  To facilitate this, we put in place a hugely complex (aka fragile), not to mention floating, system of extractive equipment.  When the 210,000 gallon per day spill started a couple of weeks ago, it was certainly a bad one, but in the end only one of about 270 which have occurred since offshore drilling began in the late 1960s.  As for the shocking revelation that we are fat, it's a virtual certainty that many millions more Americans heard that story on their car radios en route to get fast food than are aware that our sugar consumption has literally gone exponential in the last 20 years, rising from 26 pounds per capita annually to over 135 pounds, up from a modest 5 pounds in the late 19th century.

Viewed in the same way, the bee story is no more news than the rest.  Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the supposedly mysterious  'malady' behind this large scale die-off is about as real and about as surprising as Ms. Montag's dynamic curvature.

Certainly bees are dying at rates that make all of the world's wars of the last century combined look like polite disagreements over tea.  But CCD as a 'syndrome' is much less real than the fact that most beekeeping, like the rest of our industrial agriculture, is fundamentally extractive and destructive of life.  In the late 1980s, Wendell Berry noted in one of his essays that the amount of topsoil lost annually due to conventional farming practices far exceeded the amount of food produced in any given year.  Interestingly, one of our 'strategies' for accommodating (not countering) this destruction of the land has been to rely increasingly on petroleum to manufacture, transport, and apply artificial fertilizers.  Thank goodness we don't need soil to grow food.  It comes from supermarkets, silly!  Apparently, judging from the fleeting attention CCD coverage usually gets, we've determined that we don't need bees to grow food either.

Claude Rains in Casablanca perfectly expressed our cultural approach to 'news' of this nature when he delivered his famously fake lines, "I'm shocked!  Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."  (croupier enters stage right and says to Rains, "Your winnings sir.")  With agriculture, forestry, energy, medicine, technology--really with virtually everything--we drive like maniacs toward a variety of cliffs and then somewhere about mid-launch into the abyss muster our most genuine affection of dramatic surprise to declare the existence of 'puzzles' and 'mysteries' and 'news' around the fact that we've just driven off the cliff.

As things accelerate alarmingly downwards, scientists are customarily called in to study matters and to suggest prudent courses of remediation.

Be a bee for a moment.  For millions of years you've evolved, freely breeding with the usual rapidity of insect populations, to become a creature accustomed to life in a stable, long-term colony probably housed in the protected hollow of a tree, a small cave, etc.  Your entire behavioral make-up is geared toward the gathering and storage of honey stocks to help your colony make it through winters, prosper, and even multiply.  The interior of your colony is a model of hygiene and order.  You've even learned to use naturally antiseptic plant resins as building materials which double as purifiers for your domain.  Nutritionally, your chosen food sources are nearly perfect:  complex sugar from nectar and pollen which is rich in vitamins B, C, A, D, and E and consists of about 35% protein.

Fast forward to the last fifty years or so.  (And, I do mean fast forward.  The shift from all of the above to what you're about to read in the new scenario has occurred almost instantaneously in the big scheme of things.)  You're still a bee, but your ability to breed freely and to adapt gracefully to environmental challenges has been utterly interrupted.  North American bee stocks have been bred down to a virtual genetic pinpoint focused entirely on honey production and docility.  Your home is no longer stable or even one that you choose.  Rather, you're given a thin-walled wood box, often augmented with artificial materials, paint, etc.  This salt box abode is also invaded on a regular basis and, in most commercial beekeeping setups, is actually moved from field to field several times each season, forcing your entire colony to reorient in search of food.  (The practice of regularly moving bees for agricultural purposes has been characterized as the single largest forced migration of a living species in history.)  What you find when you go out in search of food is mostly one thing (almonds, orange blossoms, clover, etc.) rather than the variety you're accustomed to.  Worse, it's heavily tainted with a variety of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used to support commercial agriculture today.  Undeterred, you still muster your numbers and your instincts to store up considerable quantities of honey and pollen to get you through the winter, most of which is stolen from you to be sold.  In exchange for this nutritionally complete bounty, you're fed sugar water and occasionally a cocktail of something a biochemist has dreamed up and agribusiness has sold to beekeepers as a 'nutritional supplement'.

That was a long paragraph, one full of the dismal and mind-numbing realities surrounding this little corner of commercial agriculture, aka The Way We Eat.  So, let's recap:

  1. Bees are undergoing a massive die-off.
  2. In quite literally the past 50 years we've:
    • Bred bees down to a very narrow genetic base.
    • Largely narrowed their food supply down to a series of mono-crops.
    • Adopted a practice of radically and regularly relocating a large percentage of the bee population.
    • Replaced clean bee food sources with new ones laced with a wide variety of poisons.
    • Convinced ourselves (apparently owing to the success of our self-experimentation on the linkages between sugar consumption and health...see above) that bees don't need real food and can live well instead on mainly sugar water.
  3. We have discovered a mystery called CCD.
What do you think?  

Well, here's what I think:  I think that real news might better consist of some serious exploration of how it is that we do utterly reckless things like burn off millions of years of accumulated carbon in less than a century, or intentionally inject massive quantities of toxins into the land and water and air, or wash off a significant portion of our topsoil, or enslave entire species, or utterly deplete global water supplies, or introduce radical genetic interventions in the form of GMO crops, or even radically alter our own diet in the service of we do all of these things and still keep a straight face when we call in the scientists to help us explain the wreckage that results.