Seeds on seeds on seeds: Why more biodiversity means more food security

By Gary Naban  – Posted in Grist

It is puzzling that Monsanto’s Vice President Robert Fraley recently became one of the recipients of the World Food Prize for providing GMO seeds to combat the effects of climate change, just weeks after Monsanto itself reported a $264 million loss this quarter because of a decline in interest and plummeting sales in its genetically engineered “climate-ready” seeds. And since Fraley received his award, the production of GMO corn has been formally banned by Mexico, undoubtedly seen as one of Monsanto’s major potential markets.

seed-savingThe World Food Prize, offered each year on World Food Day, is supposed to underscore the humanitarian importance of viable strategies to provide a sustainable and nutritious food supply to the billions of hungry and food-insecure people on this planet. Ironically, what is engaging widespread public involvement in achieving this goal is not Monsanto’s GMOs, but the great diversity of farmer-selected and heirloom seeds in many communities. Why? Because such food biodiversity may be the most prudent “bet-hedging” strategy for dealing with food insecurity and climate uncertainty.

Consumer demand in the U.S. has never been stronger for a diversity of seeds and other planting stock of heirloom and farmer-selected food crops, as well as for wild native seeds. One of the many indicators that the public wants alternatives to Monsanto is that more than 150 community-controlled seed libraries have emerged across the country during the last five years. And over the last quarter century, those who voluntarily exchange seeds of heirloom and farmer-selected varieties of vegetables, fruits, and grains have increased the diversity of their offerings fourfold, from roughly 5,000 to more than 20,000 plant selections. During the same timeframe, the number of non-GMO, non-hybrid food crop varieties offered by seed catalogs, nurseries, and websites has increased from roughly 5,000 to more than 8,500 distinctive varieties.

And yet, these grassroots efforts and consumer demand are largely being overlooked by both governments and most philanthropic foundations engaged in fighting hunger and enhancing human health. Even prior to the partial U.S. government shutdown, federal support for maintaining seed diversity for food justice, landscape resilience, and ecosystems services had begun to falter. Budget cuts have crippled USDA crop resource conservation efforts and the budgets for nine of the 29 remaining NRCS Plant Materials Centers are reportedly on the chopping block. As accomplished curators of vegetable, fruit, and grain diversity retire from federal and state institutions, they are seldom replaced, leaving several historically important collections at risk.

It is as if Washington politicians and bureaucrats were failing to recognize a simple fact that more than 68 million American households of gardeners, farmers, and ranchers clearly understand: Seed diversity is as much a “currency” necessary for ensuring food security and economic well-being as money. These households spend on average hundreds of dollars each year purchasing a variety of seeds, seedlings, and fruit trees because of their concern for the nutritive value, flavor, and the quality of food they put in their bodies. While it should be obvious that, without seeds, much of the food we eat can’t be grown, few pundits recognize a corollary to that “food rule.” Without a diversity of seeds to keep variety in our grocery stores and farmers markets, those who are most nutritionally at risk would have difficulty gaining access to a full range of vitamins, minerals, and probiotics required to keep them healthy.

However, despite what portions of the government and agribusiness don’t seem to fathom, consumer involvement in recovering access to diverse seed stocks since the economic downturn began in 2008 has been nothing short of miraculous. Some call it the “Victory Garden effect,” in that unemployed and underemployed people are spending more time tending and harvesting their own food from home orchards and community gardens than they have in previous decades. Public involvement in growing food has increased for the sixth straight year, according to the National Gardening Association. But even financially strapped gardeners are not shirking from using their limited resources to purchase quality seeds of heirloom and farmer-selected vegetables. The Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, reports that its sales of seed packets have nearly doubled over the last five years. Another nonprofit focused on heirloom and wild-native seeds — Native Seeds/SEARCH of Tucson — saw its seed sales triple since the end of 2009. And there are between 300 and 400 other small seed companies supported by consumers in the U.S. that offer seeds by mail-order, by placing seed packets racks in nurseries and groceries, or via on the internet.

Nevertheless, the U.S. may now be approaching the largest shortfall in the availability of native and weed-free seed at any time in our history due to recent climate-related catastrophes scouring our croplands, pastures, and forests. While a few large corporations focus on a few varieties of corn, soy, and other commodity crops, there is unprecedented demand for diverse seeds to be used for a great variety of human and environmental uses in this country, and elsewhere.

It has become painfully clear that America needs to recruit and support a whole new cohort of dedicated women and men to manage seed growouts, nurseries, and on-farm breeding and crop selection efforts for the public good. To further evaluate crop varieties for their capacity to adapt to climate change, we will certainly need many more participants in such endeavors than a charismatic Johnny Appleseed or two. They must stand ready to harvest, grow, monitor, select, and store a diversity of seeds for a diversity of needs in advance of forthcoming catastrophes. And they must value acquiring and maintaining a diversity of seedstocks, much as a wise investor relies on a diversified investment portfolio. Diverse and adapted seeds are literally the foundation of our food security infrastructure. Without them, the rest is a house of cards.

seeds of successFortunately, courageous efforts have been initiated to rebuild America’s seed “caring capacity.” The collaborative effort known as Seeds of Success, which is part of an interagency Native Plant Materials Development Program, has trained dozens of young people at the Chicago Botanic Garden to collect seeds of hundreds of native species over the last few years. In the nonprofit sector, Bill McDorman of Native Seeds/SEARCH has organized six week-long Seed Schools around the country that have trained more than 330 gardeners and farmers to be seed entrepreneurs.

Elsewhere, Daniel Bowman Simon, now a graduate student at Columbia University, has helped hundreds of low-income households (eligible for USDA Food and Nutrition Program assistance) to use their “SNAP” benefits to purchase diverse seeds and seedlings of food crops at farmers markets in order to produce not just one meal, but many. In light of recent unjustified critiques of the SNAP program during farm bill debates, it is surprising that fiscal conservatives did not acknowledge how providing financially strapped families with seedstock may be one of the most cost-effective means of reducing food insecurity over the long haul. It is tangibly giving the poor the “means to fish” rather than a single meal of a fish. With more than 8,150 farmers markets in the U.S. today, compared to 1,775 in 1994, the potential for this seed dissemination strategy to help meet the nutritional needs of the poorest of the poor has never been greater.

Regardless of whether U.S. states ever require GMO labeling or ban GMOs entirely as Mexico has done, there is abundant evidence that we need to shift public investment — from subsiding market control by just a few “silver bullet” plant varieties, whether genetically engineered or not, to supporting the rediversification of America’s farms and tables with thousands of seedstocks and fruit selections. Instead of spending a projected forty to one hundred million dollars on developing, patenting, and licensing a single GMO, perhaps we should be annually redirecting that much public support toward further replenishing the diversity found in our seed catalogs, nurseries, fields, orchards, pastures, and plates. With growing evidence of the devastating effects of climate uncertainty, now is not the time to put all of our seeds into one basket.

Gary Paul Nabhan is the author of the recent book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land. He is a permaculture designer and orchard-keeper in Patagonia, Ariz., and is widely recognized as a pioneer in the local-food movement and grassroots seed conservation.

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UMass Honors College Explores Local Food Value

UMass Sociology Professor, Christine Glodek, has organized a panel discussion on the value and impact of food to begin with sharing of pizza made with ingredients grown by the UMass Student Farm at 5:30pm:

Thursday, November 7 from 7:00pm-9:00pm
at the new UMass Honors College Events Hall

(Join us for pizza between 5:30pm and 7:00pm)

localPlease join us for conversation and pizza!

If you are coming from off-campus, you can park in the Mullins Center parking lot on Commonwealth Avenue and walk (south) toward the Honors College Living and Learning area.  Ask for the “Events Hall”.

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The Cost of Organic Food Is Worth It and—Surprise—It’s Not Always Higher

By Charlotte Vallaeys

Sons Kai and Liam shopping with Charlotte 2

“Organic food is too expensive.” It’s a complaint we, as organic farmers and advocates, hear all too often. And we’ve practiced and often repeated our defense of organic food’s higher price tag: it’s worth every extra penny in terms of a long-term investment in our health and in protecting the environment.

When people complain of the high price of organic foods, farmer Joel Salatin likes to respond: “Have you priced cancer lately?”

But we shouldn’t stop at countering the myth that organic food is “too expensive”; we must also examine the assumption that organic food actually is more expensive than conventional food. It’s simply not as black-and-white as many people assume.

Yes, I readily admit that in any supermarket that offers organic strawberries, they will be pricier than the conventional. And a box of organic cereal will definitely carry a higher price tag than the cheap conventional store-brand version.

But it is also entirely possible, without much effort, to fill a shopping cart with a week’s worth of conventional foods and pay more than you would for a week’s worth of organic food.

With two young sons (Liam is 5 and Kai is 3), I buy only organic food for my family. I shop with an organic gatekeeper: Liam sits in the cart and checks every incoming item for the USDA Organic seal. Anything without it he sends back to the shelf.

I also buy as much local certified organic food as possible and carefully choose the brands that I can trust with the important job of providing nourishment for my children. So I assumed that our food budget was much higher than that of families who do not share our commitment to organics.

After doing some quick math in supermarket aisles, I discovered that this is not necessarily the case.

Liam’s lunchbox provides a perfect example. On hectic weekday mornings, I admit that “convenience foods” like a Kraft Lunchable® box—no preparation and no clean-up required—can be quite alluring. But the ingredients list of a Lunchable® box reads like a who’s who of cheap and unhealthy items, including high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, carrageenan, artificial colors, chemical preservatives like calcium disodium EDTA, and lots of salt and sugar.

Clearly, Kraft is not interested in healthy and wholesome foods to support my sons’ well-being, but in cheap ingredients with a long shelf life and addictive taste that augment the corporation’s bottom line. I always figured that the extra cost and extra effort of peeling organic carrots and slicing organic apples were worth it. I would add that medical issues down the road cost time as well as money, and I would gladly add five minutes to my morning routine in exchange for safe and wholesome food.

Then I compared the cost of Liam’s homemade lunchbox, filled with organic foods, with that of a typical Kraft’s Lunchable, which seems to be perpetually on sale, at $2.50 per box, at my local Stop ‘n Shop. As it turns out, the homemade lunch (containing organic bread with organic hummus, organic cheddar cheese, an organic apple, organic carrots and organic raisins) costs less than a Lunchable (a typical box contains crackers or flatbread, Oscar Mayer ham, American cheese, applesauce, a cookie or a bag of candy, and a juice box).

Then I repeated the exercise with one of Kai’s favorite foods: yogurt. I was certain that our commitment to buy only the highest quality yogurt was costing us more money. I buy whole milk Butterworks Farm yogurt, which is highly rated on Cornucopia’s organic dairy scorecard. Not only is it organic, it’s from organic pioneers Jack and Anne Lazor’s farm in Vermont (Anne was one of Cornucopia’s founding Board members). They graze their Jersey cows and sweeten their yogurt with organic maple syrup. There are no fillers like pectin or “natural flavors” or any other ingredients with dubious pedigrees.

I always felt justified about my decision to pay extra for this wonderful yogurt, until I did a price comparison. On a price-per-ounce basis, I pay less for Butterworks Farm yogurt than I would for any of the major food corporations’ yogurt products marketed to children, including Yoplait’s Go-Gurt and Dannon’s Danimals.

Go figure: organic maple-syrup- sweetened yogurt from grassfed Jersey cow milk costs less than artificially flavored, chemically colored and carrageenan-stabilized yogurt in a tube.

I understand that parents living near the poverty level are not buying Go-Gurts or Lunchables either, because when money is tight, the conventional store-brand foods in bulk are definitely the least expensive. Organic foods are not cheaper than the cheapest conventional foods—and that’s a fact. But I have found conventional foods that are pricier than organic foods in nearly every corner and aisle of the supermarket.

While the complaint that “organic food is too expensive” is commonplace, when have we ever heard people point out the high cost of Go-Gurts and Lunchables?

It’s time to shift the discourse, beginning with the real numbers: on a price-per-ounce basis, heavily advertised brand-name foods from multinational corporations like Kraft and General Mills are often more expensive than wholesome organic equivalents that do not advertise and may require the occasional scooping, peeling or slicing.

It is the Go-Gurts and the Lunchables that should be the target of mainstream criticism—for being unhealthy and expensive—not the wonderful organic foods produced by responsible stewards of the land. Organic consumers know they are getting something in return: protection from toxic pesticide residues, antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones, genetically engineered ingredients, toxic solvents and fumigants. The price premium also supports sound environmental stewardship and humane animal husbandry practices. It is all well worth the extra cost.

What are consumers getting in return for Lunchables and Go-Gurts, for Betty Crocker cake mixes and Lean Cuisine microwaveable dinners, for cans of Breakfast Essentials? Rather than paying more to avoid toxic residues and chemical ingredients, shoppers are shelling out high food prices to buy convenience.

But the cost of preparing food in a factory so we don’t have to do it at home is not the only reason for the high prices of conventional foods. I found many conventional products that cost more than the exact same organic product—with no difference in preparation or packaging.

If not convenience, what are consumers paying extra for? In some cases, the word “deluxe” or “natural” on the label shot up the price significantly, even though these gimmicky marketing tools mean nothing legally. The foods are produced with toxic agrichemicals and often with GMOs and other materials that nobody in their right mind would ever consider “natural.” For example, conventional Kashi cereal (owned by Kellogg) often costs more than Nature’s Path organic cereal. And where does the extra money spent on “natural” and “deluxe” foods end up? Not to support responsible “natural” or “deluxe” farmers, but to line the pockets of multinational corporations with clever marketing departments and ad agencies.

Orange juice at Whole Foods is another good example. Uncle Matt’s orange juice, from organic oranges grown in Florida, costs less than the similarly sized containers of Odwalla orange juice. Coca-Cola owns Odwalla, which packages conventional, pesticide-sprayed oranges in a fancy package and then charges a hefty premium.

I also saw broccoli florets in the freezer of Stop ‘n Shop that were labeled “Deluxe” and cost more than the exact same certified organic variety. Conventional pasta sauce with fancy brand names often costs more than organic versions. Chobani yogurt costs more than almost any traditional-style organic yogurt. Yes, Greek-style costs more because it requires more milk to produce. But their milk comes from cows in feedlots given GMO corn and soy grown with pesticides, which simply does not justify a price tag higher than organic versions.

Organic is expensive? Organic is “elitist”? It’s time to direct the outrage where it belongs. Corporations that buy the cheapest crops—subsidized by taxpayer dollars, sprayed with pesticides, often genetically engineered—spend money on pretty packages and advertisements, and then profiteer at the expense of consumer confusion.

Meanwhile, the bees are dying, animals are abused on factory farms, and the land is poisoned by conventional agriculture.

We have a collective responsibility to ourselves, to the hard-working people who produce our food, to the animals we raise for our nourishment, and to the Earth to be discerning shoppers. We owe it to ourselves and to society to do everything we can to support organic agriculture.

A version of this story ran in Cornucopia’s Fall newsletter.

Stockbridge at the Majors Fair

There was quite a bit of interest among undeclared students in our majors at the annual Majors Fair.  Thanks to Kathy Conway for helping to create a nice display.  Here is what it looked like before the crowds arrived.

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And here are your departmental representatives hard at work.

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Scott is a great salesperson!

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Across the aisle from us were Astronomy, Biology and Chemistry…..

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CISA launches online calculator to encourage buying local food

By RICHIE DAVIS – Gazette Contributing Writer – Thursday, October 24, 2013

Who says you shouldn’t play with your food?

Not Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, the Deerfield-based nonprofit that tries to get people in the Pioneer Valley to eat more local farm products.

To encourage local voracious habits in its 20th-anniversary year, CISA has launched an online calculator to help people see for themselves the impact of buying their milk, eggs, produce and meats from local producers.

The calculator comes as the most ambitious effort in a year of innovative challenges to pump up the volume of local food consumption — activities from a “Farmstand Bingo” game during the summer to organizing local food potluck dinners this fall.

The online tool, developed with help from economists Anita Dancs of Western New England University in Springfield and Helen Scharber of Hampshire College in Amherst, lets people plug in how much of their food budget they spend on locally produced items to see how it affects the local economy.

“We wanted to find a way to help people understand the importance of food choices they’re making on a daily basis, and to demonstrate the value of buying local agricultural products,” said CISA Program Director Kelly Coleman. “None of this is totally straightforward, and we felt the accuracy of the information was really important.”

In two steps, the calculator helps a user gauge how much local food they are already buying, and then it shows how much of a difference it would make if they bought more — or less — in any given category, including cutting back on buying frozen or canned foods and “long-distance” produce, meats, dairy and eggs.

“That’s to encourage people to think about how they can do more, what the impact would be,” said Coleman.

Because even a small commitment by numbers of people to buy certain kinds of local products can affect the local economy in surprising ways, the calculator demonstrates the power of shopping locally, said Coleman.

“One of my favorite little features of it is, if you make this change, say switch $5 to local vegetables from vegetables bought from far away, it has maybe 1.77 times more of an impact on the economy, almost twice the impact,” she said. “That’s really inspiring to me. And we haven’t had that (evidence) before, for the number wonks.”

For example, by shifting $30 monthly to more local vegetables and meat, it adds 2.24 times more to the local economy than spending that same amount on nonlocal foods, according to the data presented.

The calculator uses an IMPLAN modeling program, used for economic analysis and planning, applying numbers that the user inserts according to the total amount of “intentionally” purchased local food divided by the total grocery purchases. It automatically adds 10 percent to account for other local food that may be unwittingly part of the mix.

While the calculator template may be used effectively in other parts of the country, Coleman said the data, from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, is tailored specifically to this three-county region to account for the local agricultural economy here due to different production and processing costs.

CISA did a “soft launch” of the calculator program on its website about a month ago, Coleman said, encouraging users to test it to work out confusing language and glitches.

“It’s not so much that this will make a difference to everyone,” she said. “Some people are really inspired by personal stories, while others really like the numbers. We felt this would be another way of demonstrating the impact that will inspire a certain population that really loves numbers, and this would be fun. We’ll still provide the stories and other ways” to encourage people to be “local heroes.”

On the Web: www.buylocalfood.org/buy-local/local-food-calculator/

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We can eat better by working together to strengthen local agriculture

WebBy MARGARET CHRISTIE and PHILIP KORMAN – Daily Hampshire Gazette

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Do you ever wonder how much Pioneer Valley residents’ support for local farms and food businesses impacts the local economy? It’s easy to see how buying local benefits your family (it tastes good!). Likewise, if you’re a loyal farm customer, you can guess that your purchases benefit your favorite farm’s bottom line.

But what’s the cumulative effect of our collective support for local farm businesses? Today is the third-annual Food Day, giving us a chance to tote up our joint successes — and to prepare for challenges ahead.

In honor of Food Day, CISA launched a new Local Foods Calculator at buylocalfood.org. It can help you figure out what percent of your food budget is local — and inspire you to do more by showing the impact of increasing local purchases.

For example, if you shift just $5 per week to local fruits and vegetables, it contributes almost twice as much income to the local economy as purchasing non-local fruits and vegetables. If every household in Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire County made this shift, we would see an increase of 516 jobs and add $24 million per year to the local economy.

As a region, we can generate this economic activity by working together. For a generation now, CISA has collaborated with farmers, individuals and organizations to strengthen local farms. Our successes are many — and yet, the challenges ahead are sobering.

In the past 12 months, we’ve seen commitment to local ownership and control realized through the conversion of three local businesses to cooperatives — Real Pickles and Artisan Beverage Cooperative in Greenfield and the Old Creamery Co-op in Cummington. Other local endeavors include plans for the expansion of the North Quabbin Community Co-op into a storefront in Orange and in Springfield, community activism has created the real possibility of a full-line supermarket opening in Mason Square.

These business successes build on other positive trends related to local food. From 2008-2013, the number of farmers’ markets in our region grew 74 percent to 47 (including seven winter markets), while CSA farms grew 145 percent to 49 farms feeding approximately 40,000 people.

Local beer, brewed with local ingredients, is now created, consumed and celebrated at The People’s Pint and Northampton Brewery. Local wineries are producing more wines with local grapes. Local hard cider has experienced an amazing renaissance. And a new whole animal butcher shop, sourcing from local farmers, will open in 2014 in Northampton. We can measure the impact of our local purchases in dollars, in jobs, in businesses and in beer!

Together, we’ve begun to shift our food economy closer to home to benefit our communities. A number of factors, however, threaten our work. First, we must ensure that all residents of our region can benefit. As income inequality grows, the federal SNAP (food stamps) program is an important source of food for 15 percent of Americans, but Congressional inaction and antipathy threaten this program. Sixty percent of the farmers’ markets in the Pioneer Valley accept SNAP, and SNAP dollars used at farmers’ markets increased 41 percent from 2011 to 2012, making it a growing source of income for farmers. You can help by reminding your representatives that you support SNAP benefits and that USDA programs have helped more farmers’ markets accept SNAP and you can generously give when your farmers’ market asks for funds to match SNAP dollars.

While the debacle of the recent government shutdown reminds us why we value local action, we can’t ignore the power of the federal government to be a positive or negative force for local farmers. Decades of federal farm policies favoring the largest farms mean that in 2007, less than 2 percent of farms accounted for 50 percent of total sales of farm products (GAO Report, Concentration in Agriculture, 2009). The last five-year Farm Bill funded many innovative programs benefitting local, organic and beginning farmers, but since it expired a year ago Congress has been unable to pass a new Farm Bill. We need a new Farm Bill, and we need a better Farm Bill.

The impact of the federal government is also visible in the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act regulations. Although these regulations were created in response to food safety problems in the industrial food system, the proposed regulations would disproportionately increase costs for small, diverse farms. The result — we will lose a good number of small farms due to the high costs to comply. Comments on these rules are due Nov. 15 — learn more and take action at buylocalfood.org.

On Food Day, raise a local libation to our joint successes. Pledge to increase your local buying, and to take action to ensure that government policies benefit our farms and our neighbors. The next step for change involves not only what is on our plate and who is sitting at our table, but what are the rules that we eat by. Together, we can make sure our farms can feed us all.

Margaret Christie is special projects director and Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).

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Crisis in the beehives described in documentary ‘More than Honey’ shown at Amherst Cinema

By RICHIE DAVIS – Gazette Contributing Writer – Thursday, October 17, 2013

Honeybees are on the job from the moment they emerge from their nest. But their work, which helps create one-third of the earth’s food, is in jeopardy.

More_than_HoneyThat crisis in the hives is what drew more than 150 people to a special Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture showing of “More Than Honey,” a 2012 Swiss documentary last week at Amherst Cinema. Yet the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder, a set of conditions that’s killed off more than 10 million beehives since 2006 in this country and, the film suggests, has decimated 50 to 90 percent of all bees, depending on what part of the planet you’re on, remains as mysterious as its name.

“If bees ever die out, mankind will die out four years later,” is a message in the film attributed to a quote by Einstein. A panel consisting of Dan Conlon of Warm Colors Apiary and Ben Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farm, both in Deerfield, and Phil Korman, executive director of CISA, agreed the threat posed to the food supply is serious.

conlon“These bees live a hard life,” said Conlon, reflecting on the rigors of dealing with industrialized agriculture, pesticides and other factors shown in the film.

But this area suffers less from some of the causes of the die-off of honeybees, including pesticide use by farmers and their working with migrating pollination contractors, said Conlon, who rents his hives to just half a dozen area fruit and other growers. “The kind of farmers I deal with would never spray my bees.”

Unlike professional pollinators delivering millions of bees to North Dakota, many dead on arrival after a 1,700-mile drive from California as part of an annual migration, Conlon’s hives are moved 20 to 30 miles and fed honey rather than a corn-syrup mixture that he says is a mainstay of commercial apiaries.

clarkdale“It’s a stark contrast for us,” said Clark about the dependence of migrant colonies for California’s 810,000-acre almond-growing industry. Without bringing in any man-made hives, “We use all native pollinators. We have diverse crops, with peaches, apricots and cherries early on, so there’s a long feeding time for bees and other pollinators. I was really alarmed at the commercialization of that whole industry,” as shown in the documentary, including daytime spraying of almond orchards where bees collect fungicide along with pollen.

Clarkdale uses an “integrated pest management approach” that minimizes pesticide use and during pollination season sprays only at night, when pollinators are in their hives. “That’s your livelihood. If you wipe out the bees, you’re not going to have anything there. As farmers, that’s something we just don’t do.”

But Conlon, who lost about 30 percent of his hives over the past winter, because of everything from bears to a seemingly worsening breed of small hive beetles, said, “It’s a much bigger thing than just pesticides. … It’s the whole environment that’s coming into play with the bees.”

Honey producers, who feed their brood honey rather than corn syrup, have seemed to fare better because honey helps bees activate their immune system to filter out toxins, said Conlon.

The top problem for beekeepers around the world, especially since the late 1980s and early 1990s, is the Varroa destructor mite, followed by the loss of genetic diversity. Another key problem is loss of habitat for honeybees, with large areas of this country no longer growing food to support pollinators.

“One of the reasons Ben can still rely on native pollinators is that western Mass. is still pretty much intact, with a lot of native species doing pretty well around here,” Conlon said.

That is in sharp contrast to parts of China where pollution has so decimated the bee population that humans have to physically go from flower to flower in orchards brushing petals with pollen.

A real concern for beekeepers, said Conlon, is lawn-care applications of “neonicotinoid” insecticides which indiscriminately destroy the nervous system of any insect.

Although restrictions may finally be tightening, Conlon said, “You can buy them in any store by the gallon, and any homeowner can spray their entire yard with the stuff without any kind of licensing or training.”

Until parasitic mites became a problem a some 15 years ago, common practice among beekeepers was to let their queen bees mate with wild drones. But those fertile populations were also killed by the mites, “so for the first time, beekeepers have become critical to keeping bees going. They probably would have died off by now. Historically, we’ve moved the bee from being a wild creature to a domesticated creature.”

What that means, though, is that the bees that remain “aren’t as resilient, they aren’t as tough,” said Conlon, who this year began working exclusively with Russian bees under a U.S. Department of Agriculture program. Those hardy bees have many of the same immunities to pests and disease resistance as harder-to-manage Africanized bees.

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Sponsored by the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture

Video trailer on the Web: http://binged.it/1gkT2QM

Original post.