Honeybee hives are collapsing at alarming rates in the United States. Over the last several years, annual losses have averaged around 33 percent, while demand for pollinating bees around the country has grown. California will be especially affected by continuous decline in bees and bee health, as the state produces $16 billion worth of specialty crops in need of pollination.
Specialty crops, which are fruits and vegetables, require more pollination in order to grow than crops like corn and soy and are the backbone of California’s agricultural output. Nearly all of our almonds, for instance, are grown in California, and two bees are needed for every acre of almonds. The decline of the bee population has the potential to lead to unemployment and deprive many people of nutritious food. The USDA estimates that one in three mouthfuls of our food benefited from bee pollination in some way.
It remains unclear why bee colonies are collapsing, and politics and economic force have obscured the truth, pitching the pesticide industry against environmentalists and beekeepers. Simply put, the debate goes something like this: environmental and consumer groups argue that a specific class of pesticides called neonicotinoids are causing beehive collapse, while the pesticide industry – mainly Syngenta and Bayer, two large corporations – claims that the decline in the bee population is due to a complex range of reasons.
The science is unclear about the decline in health among bee colonies, and there have been several studies supporting each side of the argument. But a recent USDA study represents perhaps the most significant voice on the problem, not because only because of what the data shows, but also because it highlights our government’s aversion to meaningful action on the topic. The study, published in 2011, links pesticides to the weakened immune system of bees. Compounding the problem, there’s no incentive for the corporations that make the chemicals to change; fines for misusing products like these are minimal.
On April 10, 2013, various nonprofit organizations concerned with consumer protection and the environment, along with beekeepers themselves, announced that they are going to sue the EPA for allowing conditional registration of neonicotinoids. (Conditional registration means that any new pesticide of the kind in question will be approved without going through a complete background investigation process.)
This is not the first time that the EPA has been at the center of the pesticide debate. In 2010, an EPA memo was leaked that acknowledged the negatives effects of pesticides on bees. The language of the memo was definitive. It stated that “Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and oral basis.” But controversially, the EPA continues to claim that more research on the problem needs to be done, and more importantly, they continue to loosen regulation of these products.
But there are also important critiques to be made of the position that the environmental and consumer groups take. The first is that Syngenta and Bayer’s products appear to be safe in moderation. The companies’ side of the story goes something like this: farmers are under pressure to keep their yields up, so instead of using the specified amount of product, they overuse these pesticides without realizing the potential consequences on bees. The other major arguments to be made are that, while these pesticides may be contributing to colony collapse, there are several other more influential factors, like varroa mites, transportation pressure (who knew bees get transported coast to coast to pollinate our crops?), and malnutrition due to crop monocultures; bees simply don’t have enough variety in their diet to stay alive.
Debate about this topic reaches beyond the US and into Europe. The EU is in the process of attempting to ban the type of pesticides in question, and countries like France, Germany, Italy, and Slovenia have already suspended their use in some cases.
In some ways, this debate is a symbol of many other debates in the American agricultural system. It highlights the power dynamics between small specialty crops growers and large agribusinesses. Our government, with its publicization of this issue through Senate hearings in the Environment and Public Works Committee, has attempted to bring pesticide usage concerns to the forefront of the agricultural issues today, but has not specified any intention of changing legislation to address this problem. And this seemingly obscure issue not only effects beekeepers, it has the potential to hinder the specialty crops movement sweeping this country and change our food system in unimaginable ways.
This may be one of those cases where large corporations, like Bayer and Syngenta, are simply evil and profit driven. But this also might be a case in which just because one of these corporations makes an argument that would protect their profit, it doesn’t automatically make their argument illegitimate.
Graciela is excited to begin her new column! Share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.