Wednesday, May 28, 2008

We miss the bees

Though this has been a beautiful spring, we have noticed a disturbing absence in our flower garden. We seem to be suffering from a serious shortage of bees.

Our front yard is loaded with white clover, and our flower beds are full of bees' favorites. With names like Bee Balm and Bienenfreund (German for "Bee's friend"), you'd expect the flowers in our garden to be lousy with bees. And in past years, they have been. But this year, it seems eerily silent in our garden. The familiar buzzing is missing around our blooms.

Commercial apiaries are suffering dramatic losses of bee populations due to a mysterious killer called Colony Collapse Disorder, and wild bee populations, like the ones who should be pollinating our garden, are being ravaged by disease and parasites.

Last week Germany took dramatic action to ban an entire class of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, which have been blamed for the deaths of millions of honeybees there. Bayer CropScience, one of the main producers of neonicotinoid pesticides like imidacloprid and clothianidin, two chemicals that have been blamed for massive bee die-offs in the US and Europe, denies that the pesticides are dangerous "when used properly."

I don't find their reassurances very satisfying. Surveys from the Apiary Inspectors of America this year report that honeybee populations in the US are down by about 36% over last year, and last year they were down by 31%. Growers who depend on honeybees for pollination, like fruit growers, are paying top-dollar for commercial pollination services, adding to the list of woes driving up food prices around the world.

We haven't had a scientific survey done in our garden, but I'm finding the quiet out there more than a little disturbing. We need some real answers about what's killing off bees around the world, and perhaps we need to be following Germany's example when we've got a good hunch.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wash that produce

The US Department of Agriculture is about to cut an $8 million survey program that provides the public (and many government agencies) with data about how much pesticide US farmers apply to their crops around the country. Toxic Free NC uses this vital data regularly. I was interviewed for an NPR Marketplace story about the cuts today - you can listen here.

Read more about the cuts on Jennifer Sass's blog at the NRDC.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Global Food Crisis - Ouch.

Headlines about the global crisis of increasing food prices are pretty staggering. Here in the US, food prices up as much as 20 or 25% for some staples have added insult to the injuries of record-breaking prices at the gas pump and the housing slump. Local food banks are reporting unprecedented jumps in their populations served over the past couple months. Meanwhile, in poorer nations overseas, where people spend a much larger portion of their incomes on food, and prices for some staple crops like rice have doubled or even tripled in price over the past several months, there have been riots and other evidence that the situation is becoming increasingly critical.

In the midst of this devastating silent tsunami, I ask you to consider some of the causes, many of which are environmental:

1) Climate change. Droughts, floods, and other unusual weather patterns across the globe have disrupted farming over the past few years and hurt local food supplies in many parts of the world. This has made people more dependent on imported food and driven up the price.
2) Gas prices. Food that is trucked, shipped and flown around the country or the globe is costing more to transport these days, with gas hitting new record prices all the time. This is hurting import-dependent developing countries most.
3) Increased meat consumption. It takes about seven or eight hundred calories of grain to make one hundred calories of meat. Consider the impacts on global grain prices of increasing meat consumption in populous countries like China and India, while American appetites for cheap and plentiful meat remains high as ever.
4) Fuel made from food. There has been a great push in the US and several other countries to put more ethanol in people's gas tanks to reduce tailpipe emissions. 20% of the American corn crop was used for biofuel in 2006, a number that has come up from the single digits in just a few years. This has driven up prices for corn, and prompted farmers to divert land from other food crops to corn (driving up prices on those crops), or from "conservation" (un-farmed land near water ways and other sensitive areas). Increasing corn production in turn contributes to water pollution problems (think of the growing "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, and the fact that an herbicide commonly used on corn has been shown to cause hermaphrodism in frogs).

So, what can we do? A few ideas -

* Eat local. May and June are some of the lushest, most productive months on farms and NC. Take advantage by hitting your local farmers market or local foods grocer - you'll find prices on locally produced foods relatively stable, and you'll be helping to ease the pressure on the global commodity market and stabilize food prices for people who don't have other options. Better yet: grow your own. Can't beat free! Also, please keep an eye out for opportunities to get local foods in more places in your community: Local food purchasing policies for cafeterias in your favorite school, childcare center, or workplace? Farm-to-school, office, or church programs? We're here to help!
* Eat less meat. Consider a quality-over-quantity approach to eating meat and other animal products like eggs and dairy. Try eating less of them, and when you do eat them, focus on local and sustainable options, which are often more nutritious and tastier! It'll be better for you, better for our environment, and better for our global food economy.
* Share. There are lots of organizations working to fight hunger, both domestically and overseas, which you might consider supporting this year. One tip - the national "Stamp Out Hunger" food drive is coming up this Saturday, May 10th. The National Association of Letter Carriers has teamed up with food banks across the country to pick up your food donations from your mailbox this coming Saturday. Please consider making a gift - in our area, your gifts will be handled by the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, which distributes food to many smaller providers across our region.

In the long term, more of us need to recognize that our economic decisions, as individuals and as nations, are having a serious impact on the global environment and on the welfare of our neighbors on this planet. Our global food economy is seriously broken, and we need to fix it. We as a society, and the governments who are working for us, must heed the lesson of this crisis by making long-term investments in *real* energy efficiency, and agricultural practices that are truly sustainable in the environmental, social and economic senses of the word.

So, my dear readers, please keep on eating local, voting your heart, and speaking your mind!