Honeybees travelling cross-country by container truck instead of flying on their own steam? Yes, indeed. Long before shipping containers began to be used as protestor-deterring roadblocks or temporary field offices or housing, they were transporting billions of bees in their hives, each holding thousands, to far-flung farms across the US to pollinate crops. Recently, some 50,000 bees dropped dead in a car park. The only explanation was the toxic pesticide sprayed on trees nearby. One Canadian honey farm alone lost 40 million bees in one fell swoop.
What happened in the days before convoys of 18-wheeler trucks transported bee containers? Had honeybees become immobile? No. But all insects, including bees, go voluntarily only where they can forage for food of their own choice. Save some national parks reserved for undisturbed biodiversity, chemicalized industrial agriculture has largely destroyed wildlife both above and underground in the west. With nowhere to explore, honeybees stayed put where they could survive, and flourished somewhat only when bee farmers provided them hives and the environment they needed, sometimes even junk food like high-fructose GM corn syrup that compounded their health problems!
Since many fruits and vegetables have to be pollinated to reproduce – 130 in America alone — and wild bees disappearing or ignored — bee farmers found a growing market for domesticated honeybees. – By seasonally trucking them confined in their hives for the duration of the trip, to distant farms, and back.
It was highly profitable. For a while. Now their future is uncertain. Soon, what hit them will hit Pakistan if we continue stubbornly with large-scale monoculture. Not that our agricultural scientists haven’t researched the negative impacts of agro-chemicals. But the scientific lingo doesn’t reach farmers, media or politicians in a language they can understand. Research doesn’t include contamination issues and other impacts of GM crops and their companion chemicals, what with Monsanto seemingly controlling our agricultural officialdom.
Over seven decades, US monoculture – plantations growing single-crops on acreages of tens or hundreds of square miles – were achieved by the wholesale destruction of on-farm trees and wild plants, defoliated by chemicals and uprooted by huge, heavy farming machinery. Anything unwanted was considered a weed. Not even the paths between crop rows or hedge borders were spared; traditional farmers maintained them as habitat and food source for the birds, bees and other little creatures depended on for natural pollination. Today, one can wander through American monocultural mega-farms for days without once meeting a bee.
But agro-businessmen were not hands-on farmers, merely investors; they knew nothing about ecology and the environment, and couldn’t care less. They looked for short-term profits, not long-term sustainability. Scientists knew better; but paid lavishly by profiteering corporations, they acquired their arrogance as well, convinced to believe they could manipulate nature at will to unlimited lengths.
The first time the world outside North America learnt of widespread bee collapse was in 2006, mainly through the internet. Most developing world media didn’t pick it up. Not practicing the same extreme agriculture, they didn’t have the same problems. Multinationals were relentlessly pushing dependency-creating hybrids, then GM, seeds that performed only with resistance-creating chemicals that previously killed cockroaches and other vermin, and people in inhuman warfare. And yet – maybe because they don’t see the growing process – people don’t realize they’re eating poisons on a daily basis that often end as difficult-to-treat diseases or incurable cancers.
It’s no coincidence that bee colonies began to disappear soon after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), allowed a new class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, into the market. Not only are these more toxic, they are water soluble and pervasive – getting easily into soil and groundwater, hanging around for years, while people drink it and eat food grown with it.
What these chemicals do to plants and insects is just as bad. Once they enter the plant, they carry to all parts of it, including the pollen and nectar. They accumulate in the bee’s central nervous system, weakening its immune system. When bees carry pesticide-laden pollen to the hive, all the bees consume it, so that all are subjected to slow poisoning. As their immune systems fail, they become prey to normal bee infections such as viruses, mites, parasites, bacteria and fungi, which ordinarily they are able to deal with, but which now become killer diseases.
That’s not all. Neonicotinoids also affect bees’ central nervous systems which is irreversible. This leads to disorientation, impairing the ability to navigate their way back to the hive. If they can’t get back within 24 hours, they die. – Which explains their sudden mass ‘disappearances’.
Over 5 billion pounds of pesticides are annually dumped on US crops. 10,000-20,000 farmworkers suffer acute pesticide poisoning every year which doesn’t even include poor, often illegal, migrant workers who can’t afford treatment.
The EPA itself admits that “pesticide poisoning” is the most likely cause of bee deaths. So asserts recent studies by the Harvard School of Public Health and many more institutions. Yet the money power of Monsanto is so great, extending deep into Congress and government, they continue to disregard demands from the environment, farmworker and consumer organizations for updating protections not revised in over 20 years since GM crops paired with chemicals, came in.
10-15% is the normal rate for annual bee loss. In the winter of 2012-2014, the loss was between 40% and 90%. Many went out of business. The 2013-14 winter loss averaged 25%, still too high to guarantee long-term survival.
Pesticides and GM crops have hit Europe badly. In April this year, Greenpeace EU released a study of 100 pollen samples collected from 12 European countries. 53 different chemicals were found. Over two-thirds of them held a mix of 17 different toxic pesticides. Also other substances routinely used in insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, produced by agrochemical corporations like Bayer, Syngenta, BASF and Monsanto. Its a small wonder European bees were dying.
Unlike the US, which is still dithering over passing the proposed “Save America’s Pollinators” 2013 and other bills to protect humans and wildlife but dutifully blocked by ‘Monsanto men’ in office, the EU acted. In December last year, EU imposed a 2-year ban on neonicotinoids which affects all insects, fish, frogs and birds, suffering from chemical-doused GM crops. Activists felt it wasn’t enough. What happens after 2 years?
What does all this imply for Pakistan, notorious for aping western science blindly, despite proven failures? Few notice, but at least 30 of our commercial fruits and vegetables need pollinators. – As does that backbone of our economy – cotton, that has no substitute. By fair means or foul, officially approved or not, Monsanto’s Bt cotton mysteriously managed to cover 80 percent of Pakistan’s cotton acreages within 5 years, growing unhindered without regulation, monitoring or preparations for negative consequences.
Who knows what these imported seeds are pre-treated with? We know that increasing volumes of chemicals including the organ-damaging glyphosate (Monsanto’s brand-named Roundup) accompany it, even as international opposition mounts. Top researcher Dr. Don Huber reported that 880 million pounds of glyphosate used worldwide has contributed to the honeybee’s collapse.
Frighteningly, Monsanto’s ambitions in Pakistan include Bt corn (maize). Virtually all of today’s genetically engineered Bt cornseed is treated with neonicotinoids. Any maize or flour countries received through US aid or trade, is suspect. So if GM becomes local …
Agro-chemicals tot up a groaningly heavy yet avoidable bill. Are we, like corporate-governed America, to wait until our agriculture is destroyed or taken over, our peasants and bees have disappeared, and the only rural wage-labour left is hand-pollination with paintbrushes as happens in parts of China?
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.