Bees, GMOs and the problem of "narrative"

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/refletsdevert/ Some rights reserved.

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?

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14 Comments

  1. There aren't just two sides, and I wouldn't categorized them as pro-science vs pro-natural systems.
    Often science shows us that meddling in natural systems causes more problems than it solves. I'm not opposed to some GMOs but I am opposed to others – it depends on the type of modification. The thing many of us are most concerned about is that some oppose legislation requiring labeling so that people can make choices on products they wish to buy.

    And the question isn't really "who cares?" But rather, "it is all so complicated how can we be expected to understand it?"

    • Very good point. And if foods were required to be labeled for this (something fought by the food industry, on meat and produce, but eventually done) then consumers could choose. The likely outcome, due to the propensity of GMO processed foods, more folks would by organic, and more food companies like General Mills would make the switch to non GMO. Then the 'market' would go through a long sorting out process. Non GMO for people, GMO for animals.

  2. Lucy – I think you are absolutely right. This is about unshakable beliefs. There are serious parallels between the climate change debate and the GMO debate.

  3. "Lumping all GMOs together is sloppy."
    This also my complaint about the state of debate. Way too much moralizing going on and too little exploration of the facts on the ground. Take a complex subject, put it in the hands of a powerful multi-national company who can restrict access to information, and throw in the growing realization that there is an unpleasant reckoning coming with some aspects of industrialized agriculture and it's enough to make you want to live on nothing but tea from the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser.

  4. The problem with current agricultural practice is that there are too many people who buy too many potato chips. Its hard to blame the farmers for that. We need an economic system where people don't have to work two jobs to survive so they have time to prepare healthy food. We have an obesity epidemic and an agricultural pollution problem.

  5. Where the stakes are not low is here: for the certified organic farmers who must deal with the economic consequences of gmo pollen drift, or Monsanto's lawsuits, or the increasing herbicide drift used in light of resistant superweeds, and the slow consolidation of seed choices in the world of food.

  6. The number of bees in England increased by 7% this past year, but demand for pollination has increased be 31%. The bees are recovering, but demand is exceeding the supply. How you chose to phrase your article is misleading … even deceptive. You should check your facts first and stop the generalized emotional statements.

  7. There is an unjustified belief in the USA that meddling "government" agencies restrict corporate interests from freely engaging in economic activities through the use of unwarranted regulations. Americans erroneously assume that safety testing of chemicals and food stuffs required under government regulations protect those of us who live, breathe eat and drink in the USA. Neither could be farther from the truth. In 1976 the Chemical Manufacturers Association waged war on the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)and won. As enacted the Toxic Substances Control Act is likely, hands down, the most "toothless" environmental law in the USA. The TSCA created Federal prohibitions against mandated chemical health and safety tests. It was not until 1998 that the chemical industry, in an effort to improve their corporate images, initiated voluntary testing of a few percentage (5-7%) of the total numbers of chemicals the industry manufactured at the time (about 70,000 different chemical concoctions). About a week ago a purported 7,500 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, apparently used to "wash" coal, leaked from one of numerous storage tanks belonging to Freedom Industries, located hard onto the bank of the Elk River just north of Charleston, WV and a major water treatment plant. There is apparently no information about toxicity to humans or any other of the Earth's fauna, concerning this chemical. Hell-of-a-deal for the chemical manufactures and end users, not so good for us critters. There are now in excess of 80,000 chemical compounds sold in the USA which have virtually no or hidden information about any or all toxic effects.

    If one follows the MSM concerning GMO food stuffs one would have the same erroneous concept that GMO foods are regulated by the US Government to ensure they are safe for us critters to eat. In most countries of the world government regulations are weak to nonexistent. Once again the US leads the way with virtually no mandated testing simply relying upon the good will and kindly nature of the gigantic food stuffs corporations to ensure that GMO foods are perfectly safe for one and all, likely with the exception of themselves and the majority of the 1%ers, to consume at will. A number of countries that have a modicum of required testing for GMO foods have observed, as the management types prefer to call them, "anomalies" in the test results of the meager testing that has been accomplished. These anomalies have prompted a few countries to shun some of our GMO agricultural products which has our politicians and food producers nearly up in arms, and I do not mean the type covered by shirtsleeves. If there is no problem with GMO foods why all the fuss about simply requiring that they be so identified such that those who wish to avoid consuming them can do so, and those that wish to can consume at will?

  8. Most bio fuels come from corn. Bees don't have anything to do with corn pollination. The wind and the rain knocks the pollen off the tassel and falls on the silk of the forming ear. Soybeans are a little different but are still mostly self pollinated

    • A good example of how complex the interrelationships work. Because of govt incentives for corn ethanol farmers in the mid-west are maximizing areas planted in monoculture crops and eliminating hedgerows, kettles, etc. Then they plant mostly Roundup ready corn. So native bugs, animals and plants lose habitat, then are poisoned and, in the case of bees, lose natural forage. So it isn't JUST the GMO, which is bad enough, but also all the other things that go along with the GMO mindset.

      • Knuck – I think you are confounding (equating?) GMO with industrial agriculture. GMO is a small part of industrial agriculture. The question you have to ask is whether the particular GMO practice is better or worse than the industrial agricultural practice it replaces. In most cases I a aware of, the GMO version is far better for the environment etc. than the non-GMO alternative.For example, check out the recommended alternative planting schemes for Roundup-Ready soy beans.

        • Comment

        • The choice is not roundup vs no herbicide it is roundup vs some far worse herbicide.

    • Yes, the comment about biofuels also puzzled me. I wonder which crops they're talking about.

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