July 26, 2013

CLF Week in Links: Bees, India, Climate Change and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

More complicated news on colony collapse disorder

Mourning for Bihar. One of the saddest news stories this month has been the death of 23 schoolchildren in Bihar province, India. Latest reports are that, as part of the free lunch program that ensures children from impoverished families get at least one full meal a day, the pupils were served food cooked with oil that contained an agricultural insecticide. The pathway of that contamination is still being investigated. Equally disturbing are the prevalence of insecticides at the hands of agriculture and the unmet need for safe, healthy food. Some families have been quoted as saying that the free lunch program is an incentive for sending their children to school, and the World Bank says that 43 percent of Indian children are underweight, the highest level of any nation in the world. The school food program feeds more than 100 million children. With a population of 1.2 billion, I imagine that 100 million children receiving free lunch is only skimming the surface of need for healthy, safe food. In the U.S. our National Free Lunch Program serves about 31 million children, from our population of about 300 million.

Good and bad news for bees. First the good news. Earlier this month, Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D–OR) and John Conyers, Jr. (D–Mich.) introduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2013, which aims to reverse steep declines in bee populations by temporarily suspending the use of a class of pesticide known as neonicotinoids, which are implicated in colony collapse disorder (CCD). We can presume Blumenauer’s interest stems from the largest ever mass die-off of bees that occurred in Wilsonville, Oregon, in June— an estimated 50,000 bumble bees. Now the bad news. Latest reports suggest that CCD is worse and more complicated than we thought. Neonicotinoids seem to be just one culprit among many, including fungicides that are commonly used in agriculture. This deadly cocktail of pesticides including insecticides and fungicides is deadly to bees already vulnerable to tracheal mites and foulbrood bacteria. How dire is CCD? Bee populations are so low in the U.S. that it now takes 60 percent of the country’s surviving colonies just to pollinate one California crop, almonds.

Climate change and food crisis. Extremely high summer temperatures could be disastrous for many farmers, and this op-ed examines the looming food crisis.

Valley fever. In California’s agricultural heartland of San Joaquin Valley, what the CDC calls a silent epidemic is on the rise. Coccidioidomycosis, known as Valley Fever, is an incurable illness caused by airborne fungus and the rise in infections is being investigated.

Shame on McDonald’s. When McDonald’s tried to help its workers by offering an online financial planner, with mock budgets and advice, the truth became clear. The corporation’s workers need second jobs to meet the minimum of necessary expenses. Is the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour truly livable, if full-time employees who earn it need to moonlight to pay for heat in winter?

Hog manure. Scientific American ran a story called “Defecation Nation” by Dina Maron, further examining the proposed acquisition of Smithfield Foods by Chinese company Shuanghui International. The merger could mean a steep rise in feces load carried by the U.S.— while exporting more pork to China, Smithfield and the U.S. would be left holding the bag, so to speak, of hog manure. Some of the problems with this are the possibility that more manure could mean more antibiotic-resistant bacteria, increased health risks for hog farm workers and their communities, and further contamination of the environment by concentrated animal waste.

Antibiotics on the farm. Microbiologists are trying to work out whether use of antibiotics on farms is fuelling the human epidemic of drug-resistant bacteria. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, and Sally Davies, the UK’s chief medical officer, have warned of a coming health “nightmare” regarding the soaring increase in bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics known as carbapenems.

Biotech seeds failing. In this NPR story, we find that farmers are using more insecticides now that corn rootworms have developed resistance to the genetically engineered corn they grew. Back in the era of more ecologic farming practices, crop rotation eliminated much of the corn rootworm problem by alternating the corn crop with alfalfa, soybeans, or other crops. The larval form of the rootworm can successfully survive one winter but if the next crop is not corn, its lifecycle is interrupted. Perhaps the emergence of resistance to botulinum toxin in the engineered Bt corn will encourage farms to rediscover ecologic agriculture.

Re-convening the Pew Commission. We’re looking forward to the next report from the former Pew Commission as it reflects on the original recommendations on Industrial Farm Animal Production. The real question: Has meat changed?

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