I recently revisited Jonathan Foley’s fascinating TED talk in which he discusses the incredible impact agriculture has on the planet. His presentation is poignant and central to why we see the necessity to farm/manage the lands we have better.
Recently the NY times published an article on the startling bee death epidemic that started showing up about 8 years ago, the numbers of course are staggering. Not long ago, the normal die-off rate for managed bee colonies would land somewhere between 5 and 10%, today that figure hovers between 40 and 50%. Bees are our most important pollinators, meaning the implications on the food industry are, well, scary. I’m glad there is awareness about this issue, but really the reaction, among the average consumer is nil. Probably, for most people, it is difficult to become alarmed about a “bug” malady, or perhaps it is the perceived intangibility of the subject but just imagine if this were a mammal; particularly a mammal with an ancient symbiotic relationship with mankind, how would we react?: Let’s take the meat industry as an example, say we were confronted with a situation in which the cattle die-off rate rose to 40 or 50% and we didn’t really know why! I have no doubt it would be a major news story, most likely with a strong & definitive response by the government. The bee problem is shocking, and in many ways more alarming than the cattle example, in that we have options when it comes to animal protein. In terms of net impact we really don’t have a replacement for bee pollinators.
There are many theories, none universally accepted, as to why bees are dying off, but the most accepted has to do with the use of chemicals in plant management. Today there are 100’s of widely used insecticides and herbicides, recently (around 2005) the use of systemic insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, have gained popularity and are more and more seen as the culprit. These chemicals function by being incorporated into the plants themselves, they are applied in small doses (which could be good) but live inside the plants very structure, allowing for longterm, systemic insect control. Considering the fact that we don’t fully understand the prolonged effect of these agents, or how they react to each other, much less on fragile indicator species, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if these neonictonides were conclusively tied to the bee malady.
Ok, so I bring it up, for two reasons: because here, yet again, we have one more reason to consume organic products and two because it’s relevant to farming. In the tropical timber industry, chemical control is almost necessary. The natural competition a tree, or any crop for that matter, receives is probably ten times more aggressive in the tropics. For some crops, going organic could mean a sharp increase in manual labor and costs. Its unreasonable to assume industrial tropical food producers can simply go organic. I wish they did, but I can only imagine what the implications would be. In the tropics, I would say its more reasonable, to ask for responsible use of chemical agents. A few years ago, on my own farm, we experimented with Neem, a naturally derived alternative to insecticides, and saw some success. The downside, was that our workers much preferred stronger, industrial options. The application of the industrial brand was easier and more effective, despite the considerable effects these industrial agents might have on human health. In my experience, humans will generally opt for cheapest, easiest option, (I’m not entirely excluding myself from this condition) but I do think it is time that we (collectively) farm consciously. If work intensive options like neem are not practical for your operation, you can vie for certified pesticides. FSC has a list of permissible chemicals that might serve as a good baseline. Unfortunately, certification, is not without fault. Research is often rushed and really, how do you test every environmental, social, geographic and ecological scenario out there? Its impossible. My suggestion, as always, is to plan at a landscape level: The use of forest buffers and the promotion of natural cycles will reduce your chance of outbreak, of any sort. Separating, as much as you can, crops into parcels too will also reduce risk. Allocating species to soil and topographical conditions will reduce the need for insect and weed suppression through chemical applications (more on this later). Adhering to FSC certification standards and using low-toxicity chemicals should also reduce environmental impact. Biological controls in a well managed farm can be very effective. That is, using naturally occurring organisms and parasites to control pests: agents can be native insects, fungus or even bacteria. The use of of Pheromones is also interesting. There are plenty of good ideas out there.
Another possible service to your local flora and fauna is to actually introduce beekeeping to your operation. Areas of natural forest or reserve where there are natural buffers against synthetic products and chemicals are perfect. Ideally these are also away from homes and communities as you don’t want to create a nuisance or instigate, excuse the term, chemical warfare against the bees.
As an added bonus you may soon be eating and selling your own honey, so there.