Week of 06/03/07

Dear EarthTalk: What is causing the dramatic decline in honeybee populations in the U.S. and elsewhere in recent years, and what is being done about it?

—James Harris, Akron, Ohio

Kids everywhere may revel in the fact that bees are no longer stinging them as frequently on playgrounds and in backyards, but the decline in honey bee populations in the U.S. and elsewhere signals a major environmental imbalance that could have far-reaching implications for our agricultural food supply.

Brought here from Europe in the 1600s, honeybees have become widespread across North America and are bred commercially for their abilities to pollinate crops—90 different farm-grown foods including many fruits and nuts depend on them—and produce honey. But in recent years populations across the continent have plummeted by as much as 70 percent, and biologists are still scratching their heads as to why and what to do about the problem which they have termed "colony collapse disorder" (CCD).

Many believe that our increasing use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, which bees ingest during their daily pollination rounds, are largely to blame. Commercial beehives are also subjected to direct chemical fumigation at regular intervals to ward off destructive mites. Another leading suspect is genetically modified crops, which may generate pollen with compromised nutritional value.

It may be that the build-up of both synthetic chemicals and genetically modified crop pollen has reached a "tipping point," stressing bee populations to the point of collapse. Lending credence to this theory is that organic bee colonies, where chemicals and genetically modified crops are avoided, are not experiencing the same kind of catastrophic collapses, according to the non-profit Organic Consumers Association.

Bee populations may also be vulnerable to other factors, such as the recent increase in atmospheric electromagnetic radiation as a result of growing numbers of cell phones and wireless communication towers. The increased radiation given off by such devices may interfere with bees" ability to navigate. A small study at Germany’s Landau University found that bees would not return to their hives when mobile phones were placed nearby. Further research is currently underway in the U.S. to determine the extent of such radiation-related phenomena on bees and other insect populations.

Biologists also wonder if global warming may be exaggerating the growth rates of pathogens such as the mites, viruses and fungi that are known to take their toll on bee colonies. The unusual hot-and-cold winter weather fluctuations in recent years, also blamed on global warming, may also be wreaking havoc on bee populations accustomed to more consistent seasonal weather patterns.

A recent gathering of leading bee biologists yielded no consensus, but most agree that a combination of factors is likely to blame. "We’re going to see a lot of money poured into this problem," says University of Maryland entomologist Galen Dively, one of the nation’s leading bee researchers. He reports that the federal government plans an allocation of $80 million to fund research in connection with CCD. "What we’re looking for," Dively says, "is some commonality which can lead us to a cause."

CONTACTS: Organic Consumers Association Bees Info; Colony Collapse Disorder in Honey Bees

Dear EarthTalk: What is the "terminator seed" proposed for use in agriculture? Why is it so controversial?

—Jill Dorion, Missoula, MT

Since the dawn of civilization farmers have saved the seeds spawned by their crops and re-planted them to grow more crops. Such is the natural science of agriculture that has provided food for thousands of years.

But a technology developed in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Delta & Pine Land Company, the U.S.’s largest producer of cotton seeds, genetically-engineers seeds to produce sterile offspring after the given crops yield their annual harvest. Though not yet commercially available, this would force farmers to purchase new seeds every year, ensuring greater sales for seed companies.

Called "terminator" technology, the USDA and biotech companies like Monsanto (which now owns Delta & Pine) claim that it is not about profits but instead about preventing the escape of genetically modified plants into the wild, which could impact local plant diversity. The technology also protects companies from farmers trying to pirate their seeds. USDA molecular biologist Melvin Oliver, terminator’s primary inventor, says: "Our mission is to protect U.S. agriculture and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition. Without this, there is no way of protecting the patented seed technology."

Farm, food and environmental advocates alike say that, well, that’s exactly what does make it about profits. They fear the technology could put small farmers around the world out of business, as they cannot afford to buy new seeds every year. This could, in turn, spell widespread starvation for those who depend upon them for their sustenance. Indian author and human rights advocate Vandana Shiva, writing in her 2000 book, Stolen Harvest, calls terminator technology one of many "innovative ways to steal nature’s harvest, the harvest of the seed, and the harvest of nutrition."

Indeed, the technology could enable seed companies, which spend millions every year filing and protecting patents on individual seed strains, to enter new markets in developing countries, further extending their economic power and limiting the number of different agricultural strains being cultivated.

"Having a handful of biotechnology companies controlling the production and distribution of seeds makes farmers hostage to the economic exploitation by this industry," says Gary Goldberg of the American Corn Growers Association. And speaking in support of legislation introduced in May 2007 to ban the testing and commercializing of terminator seed technology in Canada, Colleen Ross of Canada’s National Farmers Union said, "
genetic seed sterilization is dangerous and blatantly anti-farmer—suicide seeds threaten to intensify corporate control over Canadian agriculture and offer no benefits for farmers."

In 2000, the United Nations (UN), under its Convention on Biodiversity, got into the terminator fray by declaring a global moratorium on the technology due to environmental as well as socio-economic concerns about its use. In March 2006 the UN upheld the moratorium, in the face of challenges by several countries—including Australia, Canada and New Zealand—pushing for commercialization

CONTACTS: Convention on Biodiversity; Stolen Harvest