December 10, 2008

Save the Bees, Save the World

First it was the frogs and now it's the bees. Yes, Colony Collapse Disorder is old news here in the US (although they're dying even faster now). But now Europe is getting hit hard with Italy alone having lost half its bee population in the last couple of years. According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor:
Italy, which is home to some of the continent's highest numbers of hives and one of the most valuable fruit and nut harvests, has already suffered $100 million in losses from the decline of bees, according to Italy's beekeepers association. Experts are now saying that southern Italy's entire cherry crop could be wiped out within a few years. Europe-wide, an estimated $1.25 billion in agriculture has already disappeared with the bees.
Dead bees are a problem. And not just because we'd lose a species that is possibly able to interact with quantum fields. No more fruits or vegetables either. According to the USDA (via the Yale Sustainable Food Project) "a third of all food" relies on bees as pollinators (though corn - that scourge of sustainable foodies - does not). But the percentage in Europe is more like three-quarters.

CCD has been blamed variously on mites, climate change (too rainy), pesticides and fungi. The Monitor article adds another item to the list: poor nutrition.
A study published in May... suggests other factors are playing big roles, including the lack of nutritional food for bees.

Indeed, certain kinds of flowers, including white clover and wild mustard, produce nectar that is particularly rich in protein and other nutrients that are useful to the well-being of insects, according to the research. The cultivation of much of Europe's arable land with crops and vegetables that are favored by humans, but poor in nutritious nectars, have deprived bees of a major protein source.

Oh, the irony. Industrial farming is not only failing at feeding the world, it can't feed the bees either.

Europe is trying to solve the bee problem by mandating "recovery zones" for the bees, which are just untilled fields of flowering grasses. But perhaps it's time to attack this problem at the source and save the bees by changing the way we farm.

The Rodale Institute, one of organic farming's founding institutions and located about an hour and a half from Philadelphia, now claims to have developed an organic no-till system that can operate at scale with yields as good as or better than conventional farming (lower yields being one of the prime arguments against mass adoption of organic practices). No-till farming, which involves growing cover crops on the field (hello, flowering grasses!) rather than plowing the old crop under, has been around for a while - the USDA even has a conservation program which pays farmers to use it.

But it's also been the subject of great debate. According to Scientific American, it reduces soil erosion and run-off (good) but if used "conventionally" requires a lot of herbicides to keep the weeds from choking the soil (bad). At one point, no-till seemed like a good, "easy" climate option since cover cropping would appear to sequester more carbon in the soil. The data on conventional no-till is, however, inconclusive at best leading climate expert Joe Romm to come out strongly against no-till farming as a climate fix.

But the Rodale folks claim to avoid both failures of conventional no-till farming through a complicated regime, which they call "organic regenerative farming," and new farm machinery. According to their research, the process ultimately leads to greater drought resistance (a good thing given that climate change is bringing drought to agricultural areas around the world) as well as significant increases in soil carbon sequestration over conventional no-till techniques. All this with a major reduction in hydrocarbon use. And they claim their techniques are perfectly adapted for the developing world.

But, aside from all its other benefits, it's fundamentally a system that incorporates more flowering grasses and no pesticides. Practically a ready-made blueprint for Michael Pollan's "resolarization" of the farm, it will not only help the climate, the soil and our tables, but will also be just the thing for the bees. I love it when a plan comes together.

Photo by autan used under a CC license

Labels: , , StumbleUpon Reddit newsvine newsvine

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Botanical and ecological research to create a no-till no-chemical perennial crop regime is being done at The Land Institute, under Wes Jackson. Last I knew, they thought they might need another couple decades to select and breed the new cultivars.

Blogger jte said...

The Land Institute's efforts are a little different, if I understand all this properly. TLI is aiming to develop perennial grains (and mixed grain-legume-sunflower crops), so that what is perennial is simultaneously what you harvest for human food. This Rodale organic no-till system sounds like it uses perennials, but they are not necessarily the food crop, just helper crops.

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]