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Chickens, bees and agribusiness – the need to put the chemical genie back in the bottle.


Let’s start with the chickens

I’ve been reading a collection of essays by George Monbiot – Bring on the Apocalypse. Mostly from the early 2000s. His essays paint a brutal world in which the rich and powerful get their way with government as their hand servant. They make me angry, depressed, and unable to believe we can solve environmental problems. I should read Monbiot only in small doses. When I heard last week that Tyson Foods was going to eliminate use of human antibiotics by 2017, I was immediately suspicious. Why not till 2017? What is meant by the reference to ‘human’ antibiotics?

Tyson got lots of press following its announcement, and overwhelmingly the press reports were glowingly positive. Of ones I read, only an article in the Washington Post raised these same concerns. Turns out that in North America about 70% of all antibiotics sold are for use in agriculture. Chickens (and other animals) are given antibiotics to make them well when they are sick; to protect them when animals nearby may be sick; and simply to help healthy animals grow quickly and extra big. These uses of antibiotics on healthy animals, as well as the over-prescription of antibiotics for people, are the primary reason for the development of antibiotic resistant strains of many bacteria, including the development of so-called super-bugs that are resistant to virtually all antibiotics and make stays in North American hospitals risky for anyone who is seriously sick.

The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association have all urged a ban on use of antibiotics to promote growth. The US Food and Drug Administration called on pharmaceutical manufacturers to voluntarily eliminate production of antibiotics for use in animal growth promotion back in 2013, but little action has been seen. Foot-dragging is everywhere.
Pressure from a concerned public is having an effect, but governments are avoiding taking the tough decisions, and industry is volunteering on a very slow timetable. In fact, Tyson, far from being an industry leader, is a laggard, bringing up the rear as far as antibiotics in poultry are concerned. And the announcement by McDonalds a few weeks ago that they would cease to use antibiotic-laced meat is no doubt one of the spurs that has led Tyson finally to act. So, what is really going on?
Tyson chickens

Nice life for a chicken. Modern agriculture, in striving to maximize economic profits, has cut some important environmental corners. When you cut corners, you go off the road. We need to operate more responsibly even while producing less chicken for market.
Image ©

The science tells us that feeding healthy animals antibiotics is not a good thing to do. The pharmaceutical industry and the food producers are not interested in stopping a lucrative business. Government, responding to the agricultural lobbies, is not about to force them to act. So everybody delays. Tyson’s 28th April announcement said it was “striving to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its U.S. broiler* chicken flocks by the end of September 2017. The company will report annually on its progress.” (The * led to a footnote defining ‘broiler’ as all chicken raised for meat.) Given the very strong, top-down regulation of chicken farmers by the big corporations like Tyson, I have no doubt that Tyson could stop shipping antibiotic-fed chicken within 6 months if it wanted to. Indeed, it began playing at reducing antibiotic use in 2011. My bet is it is delaying as long as possible, while waiting for its friends in big pharma to come up with new antibiotics to feed to its chickens – that is the only reason for the wiggle words around ‘human antibiotics’. It is not actually going to stop a financially beneficial but medically and environmentally dangerous practice. So much for Tyson Foods doing the right thing. And while I don’t think George Monbiot has written about this story, I’ll bet he would agree with me.

Such a clever ape

We humans are curious and inventive. Our curiosity and creativity have enabled us to develop tools that go well beyond those first stone axes that helped our ancestors make a better life. Unfortunately, as our knowledge, our inventions, and our economy have all grown, we have developed some tools that become problematic because their use has unforeseen consequences. Many of these consequences appear when the tools, or items manufactured using them, are set free in the environment, either because that is where we planned to use them, or because that is where we discarded them when they were no longer needed. Our chemical cleverness, in particular, has created numerous environmental problems because the many chemicals we have created in the lab include some that turn out to have profound effects once they are liberated in our environment.

Being clever enough to invent new chemicals, we are also capable of discovering their negative environmental impacts, and often also capable of devising solutions to those impacts that do not require ceasing use of those chemicals. But here is where our cleverness is not clever enough. We have built an economy based on innovation and products, but it is an economy that does not take adequate account of the environmental costs of those products. Environmental costs are externalized, not part of the economic decision-making process, and environmental costs that are only discovered after the fact are particularly difficult to deal with. Powerful industries do not wish to lose their investment in products that turn out to have problems. Governments are quicker to think about the needs of powerful industry, and perhaps also the needs of their employees, than they are to think about the needs of the environment. Decisions that should be made do not get made, or get made only slowly. And paradoxically, nobody seems to think it is strange that the onus always falls on those claiming an environmental hazard to prove that hazard exists beyond any reasonable doubt, and is directly due to a particular product, rather than on the producers of said product needing to prove the product is environmentally safe. So we have meat laced with antibiotics while government and industry sit around discussing voluntary changes in practices. And we have agriculture based upon over-use of insecticides and herbicides, while government and industry discuss whether or not the pesticides in question are causing damage. And the discussions go on year, after year, after year.

Neonics and pollinators

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, are neurotoxins that target the insect central nervous system, binding to postsynaptic nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and causing overstimulation, paralysis, and death. They were invented in chemistry labs, tested in controlled lab trials, and brought into production to add to the arsenal of chemicals with which modern monoculture agriculture does its thing. Agrichemical companies love such chemicals. They particularly love chemicals that can be sold to farmers with the seed for the crop, to be used in an integrated way to ensure good yields. Neonics are typically supplied as a coating on seed for crops like canola. The insecticide gets into the seed, and is present within the tissues of the seedling ready to kill any insect that happens to chew on that plant in the first weeks of life. Such a process reduces the overall quantities of insecticides used, and avoids spraying which can result in the insecticide being dispersed well beyond the crop itself. Sounds like a great deal. (Not to mention the fact that the agrichemical corporation can patent the insecticide and the treated seed, earning royalties while at the same time placing restrictions on how farmers use the product (or don’t use it), locking everything up nice and tightly to ensure lots of profits for them.

There is mounting evidence that neonics are having deleterious impacts on pollinator insects like bees. Bees are good. They are not the intended target. But they are also insects and they are killed just as surely as an insect that munches away on the canola seedlings because neonics are now widely distributed in agricultural environment. Not surprisingly, just as with the battle re antibiotics, agribusiness and governments are doing lots of talking and moving very slowly, demanding that everyone be certain that neonics are killing off pollinators before any action is taken to get the neonics out of the landscape. (Actually, truth is that action is taking place much more quickly in Europe than in North America and some other regions – perhaps money has a larger role in government in North America than elsewhere.)

But the science is becoming ever more clear. Not that neonics are the sole cause of loss of pollinators, but that it is one of a number of interacting causes. In Science of 27th March, Dave Goulson and three colleagues from the University of Sussex provide a timely review of the situation concerning neonics and the decline in bee populations around the world. They begin by stressing the importance of bees and other pollinators.
European_honey_bee_extracts_nectar Wikipedia

Insect pollinators are necessary for the success of 75% of our crop plants. Yet, we are killing them off! Such are the ways of modern monoculture agriculture. Figure © Wikipedia

Some 75% of our crop plants depend on insect pollinators which together provide pollination services worth $215 billion to global food production. Species richness and abundance of pollinators have declined over the past 50 years. The extent of loss varies regionally and among species with some suffering substantial declines and a few going extinct. Data can be patchy, but the best data for wild pollinators are for bumblebees of several species which have shown substantial declines and a few extinctions in Europe and in North America. Data are more certain for managed domestic bee hives. In Europe there has been a 25% fall in number of hives since 1985, and in North America a 59% fall since 1947, although the industry has greatly expanded the number of hives in some other regions, notably China and Argentina. (The European and North American declines have been due to colony failure – so-called colony collapse disorder, not to a decision by bee keepers to manage fewer hives.)

Studies of pollination effectiveness have revealed that many wild species are more effective, and more important pollinators than is the domestic honey bee. Thus expanding bee husbandry will not easily replace native species, and there is the possibility that we are approaching a threshold beyond which pollination by insects will be significantly impaired. Some time ago, I wrote about a study in Illinois revealing the substantial changes in insect abundance and in plant diversity over the last century. That was one of many such studies, and anyone who remembers driving on North American highways in the 1960s, when getting the windshield cleaned was as important a reason as filling up for stopping at a gas station, can attest to the fact that there are now far fewer insects about.
Goulson et al bee decline Science 27 Mar 2015 F4.large

Goulson’s Figure 3 showing the various factors implicated in the global loss of bees and the interactions among them. In a multi-causal problem such as this, it is particularly difficult for our system of governance to reduce or remove causes – no one cause is clearly responsible for any one effect. Corporations are quick to hide behind such legal devices, prevaricating while continuing to make money. Figure © Science

Goulson and colleagues discuss the various factors that are implicated in the growing loss of pollinator insects. These are habitat loss, parasites and disease, pesticides, and climate change; competition between native and domestic bees may play a very minor role in some instances.

Our increasingly mechanized monoculture agriculture is eliminating the communities of native plants that persisted until recently along hedgerows and in otherwise uncultivated land. In the UK, 97% of such habitat was lost during the 20th century. This removes not only shelter sites and nesting sites, but important sources of pollen and nectar that are available when the farmer’s crop is not producing.

Bees suffer from their share of parasites, parasitoids, and pathogens, the latter including protozoans, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. It is the spread of parasites and pathogens that is the problem here, because this introduces novel disease agents to populations unable to cope with them. This spread has been greatly accelerated by our moving of honey bee hives over large distances as commercial bee keepers move their hives to follow the crops. There is good evidence that the mite, Varroa destructor, originally associated with the Asian honey bee Apis cerana, has infected several other bee species and is now widely distributed in Europe, North America, and most recently New Zealand due to the transport we have provided. Varroa is a host for several pathogens of bees. In addition to Varroa, there are a number of other fellow travelers that either directly impact, or carry other organisms that impact bee health. All have been spread as we move hives of bees to pollinate field crops, to work in greenhouse complexes, or simply to make honey.

Some 161 pesticides have been detected in bee colonies. Of these, the neonics are the most recent, and the ones most clearly implicated in colony decline. Because bees collect pollen and nectar and bring these back to the hive, any pesticide in the environment that is in plant tissues or on plant surfaces, can be picked up. Once it is in the hive it will expose all members of the colony. While concentrations sufficient to kill off hives are very rare, concentrations of pesticides sufficient to impact health or behavior of bees are far more prevalent, and bees whose physiology or behavior are impaired can become more susceptible than otherwise to pathogens and parasites.

Finally, there is climate change and the alterations it is bringing to climate, to weather, to plant species presence, and to plant flowering regimes. Suddenly, pollinators that have evolved a life history that suits them well to the features of a location, find themselves without food, with food at the wrong time, in a climate they are not well adapted to.

As is often the case in the natural world, there is not just one cause of the decline we are witnessing in the abundance and diversity of pollinators. All of these causes interact, each one chipping away at the pollinator’s ability to survive and reproduce. The result is the sorry decline we see, and we are overwhelmingly the cause. It is in our self-interest to stop this decline, and it is pretty clear how we can do that. We need to stop the shipment of domestic bee hives back and forth across continents, or put in place far more effective quarantine between regions (even within larger countries). We need to teach farmers to leave some land fallow to support those native species of plant that the pollinators and other creatures rely on. We need to recognize that turning all our agricultural land into an enormous monoculture is decidedly not the right way forward (for several reasons beyond decline of pollinators), even if we have been moving down that path for over a century. We need to be far more rigorous about the health of domestic bees that are being sold or shipped for any purpose (including a critical look at the microfauna they may be carrying). And we need to recognize that putting pesticides into the environment has real, substantial costs. Reversing direction in agriculture, towards less use of additives of all kinds, and particularly pesticides, is both necessary and an urgent need.

None of those solutions offer increased profit to farmers or agribusiness. Nature does not always work in ways that help our economy prosper, and it is time that corporations that have been damaging our planet’s capacity to provide the goods and services on which we ultimately depend start paying for the damage they have been doing for many years. Tyson Foods should move to cut all use of antibiotics, except to treat disease in livestock, immediately; not some of that use in two or so years. And the agrichemical corporations should be eliminating the practice of putting pesticides like neonics out into the environment immediately. Yes, yields will fall temporarily – that is the real price of doing business.  And no, I am not holding my breath that these logical steps will be taken — I’ve read too much Monbiot.