Once a trend gets established, it is hard to get people to heed to warning signs. In the early
1930s, farmers in portions of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas had noticed parched soils, dust and declining productivity caused by a low rainfall and poor soil management practices. But farmers were hopeful that the next year would bring more rain and better results. Then the ecological, economic and societal disaster blew wide open as the “black blizzards” began. Dust storms covered and consumed 100 million acres of land. Hundreds of thousands left the region in a migration described in the book Grapes of Wrath. In 1935, Congress declared soil erosion “a national menace” and established the Soil Conservation Service. New farming techniques such as crop rotation, terracing, fence rows, and contour plowing began to reduce the factors that caused the dust bowl, which ended after nearly a decade of devastation.
The popular movie documentary, Surviving the Dust Bowl, ends with the following warning “In western Kansas, a group of farmers gathered on the steps of the local courthouse. One was hopeful about the future. ‘People are thinking differently about taking care of the land,’ he said. ‘Don’t fool yourself,’ another replied. ‘You can’t convince me we’ve learned our lesson. It’s just not in our blood to play a safe game.'”
In recent decades, modern agriculture is bearing out that admonition. It is jeopardizing wild
and domesticated bees, which are essential for crops that require pollenation. In a 2013 report entitled Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health observed that “Despite a remarkably intensive level of research effort towards understanding causes of managed honeybee colony losses in the United States, overall losses continue to be high and pose a serious threat to meeting the pollination service demands for several commercial crops.“ The report notes that colony losses may be attributed to many causes, including parasitic mites, bee diet, and pesticides.
Rodale’s Bee expert, Coach Mark Smallwood, noted that the first major collapses occurred in 2006 and says “It turns out neonicotinoids, a particular class of pesticide (called neonics for short), came on the scene in 2005 and usage has ballooned since. Add to this that many of the EPA approvals for neonics were conditional, meaning full environmental impact research for all their approved uses was never conducted.” The European Commission has decided to ban three neonicotinoid insecticides out of concern for their impact on bee colonies.
However, Smallwood points out that problems are more pervasive than just pesticides; they are also ecological. Other studies agree. For example monoculture farming creates habitats that provide abundant food for bees for a short period and then little or no food for the rest of the year. Smallwood also notes the risk of not addressing this issue: “More than 70 of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food are pollinated by bees.”
Let’s hope that we can react more quickly to this impeding disaster with a broader acceptance of sustainable agricultural practices and a more careful permitting process for pesticides.