Saturday, May 18, 2013

Musings: Yellow Light

The sun rises in an explosion of pink and gold and already bees are working the beach heliotrope blossoms. Turtle tracks on the wet sand speak to an overnight visitor, who rose even earlier than I. The sea invites me to swim in her salty shimmer and I accept, gratefully. It's the best time of year, when the days start early and everything is fresh and green and bursting with new life.

In the midst of all this busting out all over, the EPA approved Dow's new systemic insecticide, sulfoxaflor, which it acknowledges is highly toxic to honey bees. Seems the feds aren't concerned because they don't anticipate any “catastrophic effects” on bees. Just the usual slow simmer in the increasingly toxic soup. Besides, “industry” is clamoring for a “new and improved” pesticide because – surprise! – the bugs are becoming increasingly resistant to the stuff already used to kill them, including the neonicotinoids linked to hive collapse. Oh, but no worries, this new chemical is “softer” than the ones it's replacing. It's “beneficial.” You know, better living through chemistry.

So how long do you suppose we can keep upping the poison ante? I mean, before everything folds?

It seems Europeans are far more worried about this than Americans, who are dulled and dazed by GMO high fructose corn syrup, bad TV and a quest for the almighty dollar. As The Washington Post reports, America's devotion to pesticides and GMO crops may jam up EU trade talks:

U.S. crops inspire fear among everyone from French wine producers to German corn growers. Many European farmers say that plants that are carefully engineered to do everything from boosting production to repelling pests have uncertain environmental consequences and, once growing, spread uncontrollably via pollen that can float for miles on the wind.

In the United States last year, genetically modified crops comprised 88 percent of all corn, 94 percent of cotton and 93 percent of soybeans, according to Agriculture Department figures. In the European Union, they covered less than 1 percent of farmland, mostly in Spain, according to the European Commission.

Just two genetically modified crop types are approved for planting in the European Union, out of a far wider range of species used elsewhere. But one of the two, a BASF potato, is no longer marketed; the other, a Monsanto corn breed, is banned for growing in France, Germany and elsewhere, despite findings from both U.S. and E.U. food regulators that the produce is safe. [Many U.S.-grown products are banned from Europe.] One exception is the American-grown genetically modified soybean, which dominates the European animal feed market.

The difference in approaches, analysts say, is that U.S. regulators tend to rely on short-term scientific studies about safety to give new technologies a green light. European regulators tend to be far more cautious, focusing more on what they might not know than on what they do know.

But even the Europeans may not be spared the consequences of what Dr. Robert S. Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future, terms “a dramatic assault on the security of the food supply.” As NBC News reports:

We’re in a situation where the food supply is more vulnerable than it has ever been,” added Lee Hannah, senior fellow at Conservation International, a global nonprofit that advocates for sustainable policies.

It seems that GMOs and pesticides are only part of the problem. There's also the growing impact from atmospheric carbon dioxide, which last week reached concentrations likely not experienced on Earth since the Pliocene era, some 4.5 million years ago. The warm, moist air is allowing pathogens to thrive at a time when global trade is expediting the movement of plant pests and diseases. Citrus, coffee, chocolate, wine, maple syrup and salmon are just some of the foods that are either likely to suffer, or already getting hit.

America's reliance on mono-cropping poses another grave risk, according to Hannah:

For instance, corn plants in the American Midwest are grown closer together and taller than they have been in the past because we’re genetically engineering them to do that. That produces a lot more food. But it also makes that corn more vulnerable to disease, which, if it gets into that mono-culture system, can sweep through it much as a disease will go through a city a lot faster than it does a rural countryside."

Although the human race has faced famines of its own making in the past, this is a whole new ballgame, Lawrence says:

So there are precedents but they’ve all been local and people just abandoned those areas and moved on. What’s very sobering about the situation today: This is global and there isn’t any other place to go on this spaceship Earth.”

And it's not just about the humans, either, but all the other life forms that inhabit this beautiful planet.

Speaking of which, you know how the Navy is always trying to convince us that its sonar is perfectly safe for marine mammals? So safe that it wants to use even more of it, year-round, in waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands? Well, it's apparently not so benign as the Navy has claimed. As a new study published in Nature reports:

The Canary Islands used to be a hotspot for mass strandings [of whales and dolphins], but there have been no mass beachings since the Spanish government imposed a moratorium on naval exercises in these waters in 2004.

So couldn't we impose a similar ban here? 

I know the precautionary principle is often pooh-poohed as unscientific, and frequently bad for business, but how about if we, as humans, just exercise a little common sense? As the time-worn adage reminds us: Err on the side of caution.

Unless, of course, you don't care if it all turns to shit, so long as you're raking in a pile of cash along the way.


Andy Parx said...

I don't think I've ever heard the precautionary principle called "unscientific." As a matter of fact it's at the very heart of scientific inquiry. To assume something is true until proven false is illogical. That's why you set up a study- to see if something is true... you can't prove a negative.

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