Bees, GMOs and the problem of "narrative"
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/refletsdevert/ Some rights reserved.
I've been loosely following bee issues for a few years now, because pollinators are extremely important and they seem to be experiencing difficulty. So I often note relevant articles along the way, like this one from the BBC, warning that:
In more than half of European countries, there are not enough honeybees to pollinate crops, according to new research.
Scientists believe that a boom in biofuels has sparked a massive increase in the need for pollination.
The shortage is particularly acute in Britain which has only a quarter of the honeybees required.
Now, bees and native pollinators are facing an array of stressors. The scientific jury is still out on what the main problems may be. One theory focuses on a fairly new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, as can be seen in this CBC item from 1/6/14:
A University of Saskatchewan biologist says many wetlands across the Prairies are being contaminated by a relatively new pesticide that is threatening the ecosystem.
Christy Morrissey says that over the past few years neonicotinoids have been used increasingly on crops in Western Canada and the chemical is making its way into wetlands, potentially having a devastating "domino effect" on insects and the birds that rely on them.
'The impact on biodiversity could be probably bigger than we've ever seen before.
Morrissey is just a year and a half into a four-year study, but she's alarmed by what she's finding.
"This is huge" Morrissey said. "The impact on biodiversity could be probably bigger than we've ever seen before if we keep going at this rate."
Meanwhile, I also ran across a series of stories on genetically modified organisms – a topic currently raging in my home state, Hawaii. The GMO debate there has become a front-burner issue, prompting some groundbreaking legislation (with predictable legal challenges).
Hopping from Kauai to the the Big Island of Hawaii, the New York Times had a good article about County Councilman Greggor Ilagan as he undertook "A lonely quest for facts on Genetically Modified Crops" – his own attempt to look beyond the oft-repeated bullet points from GMO supporters and opponents.
In yet one more "meanwhile", a liberal green magazine, Grist, also took a lengthy look at the topic of GMOs. And Nathanael Johnson – a main contributor to that series – made the news himself with this summation: "What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters".
As Johnson's article begins:
About a third of the way through this series on GMOs, after a particularly angry conflagration broke out on Twitter, I asked my wife, Beth, if I could tell her what had happened. I was hoping to exorcise those digital voices from my head. Someone had probably accused me of crimes against humanity, shoddy journalism, and stealing teddy bears from children — I forget the details, thank goodness. But I remember Beth’s response.
“No offense,” she said, “but who cares?”
It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.
Got that? "The stakes are so low."
Now, you may or may not agree with that statement. Jumping back to neonicotinoids, I would postulate that if that class of chemicals is poisoning the environment, those are not low stakes.
But Johnson's supplemental point is worth considering. His source article is well worth reading in full, but I'll paraphrase a couple of his arguments. Lumping all GMOs together is sloppy. And the whole GMOs argument has largely become a heartfelt, but symbolic, metaphor for those who prefer natural systems and mistrust corporate science and big Ag. A narrative that demands loyalty to a point of view, no mater what.
Here's his summary conclusion:
We need metaphors — they’re how we come to understand the world. But they grow sterile and useless without a continual exchange between the abstract and the incarnate, between meaning and reality. They become, in fact, cliches — words we repeat without thinking. Which, sadly, is where too much of the conversation about GMOs remains stuck today.
And? What do you think?
I realize these issues remains hugely controversial. And often times both sides (pro-science and pro-natural systems) are sure the other side lacks facts, creates facts, ignores facts – or is unable to place the proper value on said facts.
So here's my question: if these issues turn out to be more about unshakable preferences than facts, where does that leave the discussion?
Tags: bees, Canada, environment, farming, GMOs, Grist, Hawaii, Nathanael Johnson, neonicotinoids, public policy, science