Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ripe for Discussion: Honeybees, Grapefruits, Climate Change, Older Farmers, CKDu, Resource Limits and Increased Pesticide Usage

Honeybee collecting pollen, photo by idua_japan

I've been collecting a number of interesting and/or disturbing gardening-related articles I've come across the past few weeks. Here are my interpretations of these stories:

- Harvard researchers laid the blame for honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) squarely at the door of neonicotinoid pesticides.

- The Florida grapefruit industry apparently is collapsing largely due to plant diseases (canker and citrus greening) that we seem powerless to stop.

- A South Carolina gardener downplays the native-vs-exotic debate and emphasizes instead the importance of having a diverse and resilient garden to cope with erratic weather that he attributes to climate change.

- According to BloombergBusinessweek, the average age of American farmers - or the "principal operators" responsible for making decisions on farms - climbed to more than 58 years old. (That's an 8-year jump from 30 years ago.) The article went on to say that from 2007 to 2012, "the number of beginning farmers--those with less than 10 years on the farm--declined 20 percent."

- The New York Times reports that a mysterious disease being called chronic kidney disease of unknown causes (or CKDu) is killing sugar workers in Nicaragua. Some people think that herbicides sprayed on the fields may be a contributing factor. Legislators in El Salvador and Sri Lanka, where similar kidney ailments are appearing, reportedly are taking steps to ban certain herbicides in an effort to stop the disease. (Although the Times is careful to point out that there is no conclusive evidence linking the herbicides to the ailment.)

I thought of all these stories in light of two articles I read in the print version of the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. One was called "The Scarcity Fallace" in the offline edition, but apparently it was retitled "The World's Resources Aren't Running Out" in the online edition. The gist of the article is that most ecologists are Chicken Littles who run around screaming, "The sky is falling!" and warning that humans are about to run out of food, water, oil, etc. The author, Matt Ridley, counters by saying that human ingenuity has solved scarcity problems in the past and sanguinely proclaims we will surely solve them in the future. When we needed more food to feed burgeoning human populations, we invented fertilizers and machinery that allowed us to make farms more productive than ever. When we needed more fresh water, we invented desalination plants and became more efficient at using water via drip irrigation in places like Israel and Cyprus. While some namby-pamby naysayers say that affluent societies are bad for the planet because they use up more resources, Mr. Ridley proclaims that affluent societies are actually better for the planet. He points out that poor societies deforest their land for fuel, whereas rich societies maintain or increase their forest cover since they rely on oil, gas and other energy sources.

There are two possibilities. Mr. Ridley either truly believes we have nothing to worry about in terms of resource constraints as global human population continues to climb toward 10 billion. (Apparently he is the author of a book called The Rational Optimist, so he really might simply have a what-me-worry disposition.) Or he simply is so pro-business that he does not want to see any curbs on natural resource exploration and exploitation that might inhibit the ability of companies to earn profits.

I've read a couple of interesting online responses to "The Scarcity Fallacy". One points out that evidence exists humans don't always overcome resource constraints. The blog Yotta Point also published an excellent ripost.

Indeed, there are so many opportunities to pick apart Mr. Ridley's argument that one scarcely knows where to begin.

For now, I'll just point out the delicious irony that the same issue of The Wall Street Journal had a large article titled "Farmers Widen Arsenal to Combat Weeds." The online version of that article is subtitled "They [the farmers] Gain Edge Against Super Weeds but Add to Costs, Environmental Concerns."

Here are some stats from that article as of the year 2012:

- 42 million acres of soybeans treated with non-glyphosate herbicides, double the 2006 total and equal to 57% of all soybean acres. (Note that these are non-glyphosate because weeds have developed resistance to the massive amounts of glyphosate - a.k.a. Roundup - sprayed on crop fields. Although glyphosate is still used heavily and apparently still accounts for 83% of total herbicide used on soybeans.)

- More than 6 million pounds of 2,4-D herbicide, nearly four times the 2005 level.

- 87,000 pounds of dicamba, more than double the 2005 level.

- Herbicide expenses are doubling or tripling

- Some farmers think they may be winning ground against weeds, others are pleased simply to have (apparently) fought the weeds to a stalemate

- The USDA's data on herbicide use is no longer collected annually "due to budget constraints"

- Potential environmental risks are discussed in a single paragraph as follows: "Environmental groups and some farm activists fear that increased use of the harsher chemicals [e.g., 2,4-D and dicamba] will make more people sick and destroy more delicate crops, like grapes, that may be located nearby. Monstanto and Dow say the products are safe if used properly, and that new formulations will be less likely to affect other fields than older version."

- Some farmers are going back to hand-weeding and hoeing to remove weeds. (It's hard to tell from the article whether these farms have abandoned chemical herbicides altogether, but I think that's the implication.)

Let's just pause for a moment to give a slightly more thorough treatment to the risks of the two herbicides that the Journal notes are being used much more frequently and heavily than before.

First, 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). The USDA Forest Service (which uses 2,4-D in its vegetation management programs) has this to say:

Unless steps are taken to mitigate risks, workers involved in the application of 2,4-D and
members of the general public who consume vegetation contaminated with 2,4-D could be
exposed to 2,4-D levels greater than those which are generally regarded as acceptable. In some
cases, the exceedances are substantial. Similarly, adverse effects in the normal use of 2,4-D salts
or esters could occur in groups of nontarget organisms including terrestrial and aquatic plants,
mammals, and possibly birds. Adverse effects on aquatic animals are not likely with
formulations of 2,4-D salts except for accidental and extreme exposures at the upper ranges of
application rates. The ester formulations of 2,4-D are much more toxic to aquatic animals and
adverse effects are plausible in sensitive species and sometimes in relatively tolerant species. 

The results of this risk assessment suggest that consideration should be given to alternate
herbicides and that the use of 2,4-D should be limited to situations where other herbicides are

ineffective or to situations in which the risks posed by 2,4-D can be mitigated.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, as you can expect, takes an even more critical view of the chemical:

Despite dozens of scientific studies that link the toxic pesticide 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxy acetic acid) to cancer and other health risks such as cell damage, hormonal interference, and reproductive problems, 46 million pounds of 2,4-D are applied to U.S. lawns, playgrounds, golf courses, and millions of acres of agricultural land every year. This toxic pesticide contaminates our air and water, finds its way into our homes where it poses a higher risk to children, and the use of 2,4-D could be on the rise if new genetically modified corn and soybean crops are approved. To protect the health of thousands of Americans, NRDC recommends that the Environmental Protection Agency restrict use of 2,4-D and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture not allow new 2,4-D Ready crops on the market.

(Note that if NRDC's numbers are correct, that 40 million of the 46 million pounds of 2,4-D sprayed annually in the U.S. are getting sprayed for non-agricultural -- probably mostly cosmetic -- uses.)

What about Dicamba? According to Extoxnet, Dicamba is "moderately toxic by ingestion and slightly toxic by inhalation or dermal exposure" as well as "very irritating and corrosive and can cause severe and permanent damage to the eyes". Extoxnet also says that "Dicamba does not bind to soil particles (Koc = 2 g/ml) (4) and is highly soluble in water. It is therefore highly mobile in the soil and may contaminate groundwater. Its leaching potential increases with precipitation and the volume applied."

So how are these two stories in the same issue of the Journal connected, and what relationship (if any) do they have to the other stories linked above?

I believe that Mr. Ridley is being naive if he thinks that human ingenuity can overcome what ever problems nature throws at us. It is true that we are often able to overcome a proximate problem with a technological solution, but our solution sometimes causes a whole cascade of other problems - unintended consequences - that we could not have foreseen.

So yes, we found ways to increase crop yields through the use of chemical fertilizers and massive applications of herbicides and pesticides, but at the price of polluting groundwater, potentially eradicating honeybees (and presumably other beneficial insects that don't get the same type of PR coverage), perhaps damaging countless "nontarget organisms" and stimulating the evolution of the very types of "undesirable" plants and insects that we are trying to kill.

Yes, Israeli and Cypriot farmers who bumped up against water constraints a long time ago may have figured out ways to use less water on their crops, but vast amounts of water reportedly still are wasted each year

And even though a given machine may get more efficient, we keep inventing so many new machines that world energy consumption is still predicted to climb dramatically over the next few decades. Our refrigerators and dishwashers may be far more efficient than they were 30 years ago, but our forebears (or younger selves) did not have multiple personal computers, DVD players, gaming consoles, tablets, mobile phones, etc. to charge and recharge like so many of us have nowadays. 

And there are literally billions more people on the planet than there were in the early 1980s, many of them clambering their way out of poverty and striving for the same sorts of modern energy-consuming appliances and machines that we in the United States take for granted as our birthright.

All of this would no doubt seem disconcerting or unpleasant to an optimist like Mr. Ridley who seems to wish to believe (like Dr. Pangloss from Candide) that we live in the best of all possible worlds. 

I had actually forgotten (until Wikipedia reminded me) about Candide's ultimate response to this optimistic, Panglossian view. Rather than blinkering our eyes to the problems that surround us, Candide says "We must cultivate our garden."

How wonderful! (At least, how wonderful for a gardener and garden blogger to discover/recover this fact.)

The problems that we face are so big and so complex and so much of our own doing that it could be disheartening to face them. If we really are about to run out of water and oil and land and food etc. then we would need to make major changes in our lifestyle and priorities to forestall or prevent such shortages. 

If these shortages are illusory, then no changes are necessary and we can carry on as profligately as ever, secure in the knowledge that some Deus ex machina inventions will come along and save us in the nick of time from our own folly. 

In 2008, then candidate Barack Obama got a lot of mileage out of the campaign theme: Hope and change

With regard to the ecological problems facing a world of 7+ billion humans living in industrialized or rapidly industrializing nations, I would repurpose that slogan so it reads: Hope, but Change

Yes, we can hope that technological progress will save us from some of our worst mistakes. But we should not wait idly hoping for such progress to rescue us from the jaws of disaster. Instead, we should change our ways to whatever extent we can to err on the side of caution and work to be less profligate in our resource use. 

If Mr. Ridley is correct and such resource limits prove to be illusory, no harm will have been inflicted except we will have lived a little less high on the hog than we otherwise would have done.

If Mr. Ridley is wrong, if resource constraints are as real as they sometimes appear to be, then mending our ways could stave off disaster - not just for us, but for the countless species of plants and animals with whom we share this lovely planet Earth.