Category Archives: Health

The Apis Mellifera: the Cost of Maintaining the Powerful Pollinator

As Colony Collapse Disorder is decimating entire bee colonies, commercial pollinators are faced with rising costs and challenges in an effort to stay in business.

Honey bee pollinating an almond blossom--Courtesy of artolog/Flickr Creative Commons

“A decline in the numbers of Apis Mellifera [the honey bee], the world’s most widely distributed, semi-domesticated insect, doesn’t just mean a shortage of honey for toast and tea.  In fact, the economic value of honey, wax and other bee products is trivial in comparison to the honey bee’s services as a pollinator,” says entomologist May R. Berenbaum in the March 2, 2007 New York Times article “Losing their Buzz.” Oftentimes the debate around Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) focuses solely on the causes of the disappearance of the bees “and the reader,” according to a report by Randal Rucker, agricultural economist, “ is left to speculate on the relationship between CCD and the supply of pollination services.”  The impact of CCD on U.S. commercial pollinators is in fact far reaching:  CCD has a marked effect on the cost of pollination, and on the rising cost of producing honey bees and of renting them for pollination purposes.  An investigation of the economic implications and the economic costs of CCD is an important element of the debate.

The Apis mellifera, the world’s “premier managed pollinator species,” is a principal pollinating actor across the continents.  The honey bee transfers the pollen grain to receptive female floral parts so they can be fertilized.  As the bees flit from flower to flower they collect nectar.  In this process, as Rucker points out,  grains of pollen become attached to their bodies and, in the transferral to the flower, fertilize the plant which enables its reproduction.   As Berenbaum points out in this article,  “3/4 of the 250,000 […] species of flowering plants on the planet rely on mobile partners – pollinators – to carry out this vital process.”  These mobile partners, “’the birds and the bees’ remain an essential fact of life; as long as plants depend on pollinators, so will people.”

PBS reports on the bees’ role in pollinating our crops:

A strong colony of honey bees, as Rucker et al. point out in this article, consists of one queen, 15,000-30,000 worker bees that are sterile females and a few thousand males or drones whose sole responsibility is to fertilize the queen.  Although colonies have historically always suffered losses, in 2006 David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee-keeper noticed an unprecedented  decline in his colonies.  The unusual characteristics of the empty hives, with no dead bodies around, has been leading scientists ever since to speculate on the cause of what became known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

CCD has had strong repercussions on the commercial pollinating business.  Although bee colony decline, according to Berenbaum in this article, has not affected corn and other grain crops that are fertilized by the wind, it has seriously affected animal-pollinated foods:  most fruits, nuts, and vegetables – the diet from which we derive all vitamins.    As a result of CCD, beekeeping, an age old tradition dating back to the ancient Egyptians 5000 years ago, is seeing the costs of bee production rise.  Producers are confronted with the increased costs of renting bees to pollinate their crops, according to Hoy Carman, Professor of Agricultural & Resource Economics at U. C. Davis.

Bees being trucked--Courtesy of Emmett Unlimetted/Flickr Creative Commons

Colony losses and the need for colony replacement are understood as an intrinsic part of bee keeping and replacement methods are generally expensive.  After 2006, winter losses increased from 14 to 36%, and beekeepers have been working to address this sharp increase.  The method of choice used to replace about 80% of the colonies lost is a costly one.  It is the “making increase” method or splitting of the hive: 50% of the hive is moved to a healthy and new hive that will be fertilized by a queen acquired from a commercial queen breeder.  This expensive process relies on the buying of one queen bee per split.  In addition to the cost of the queen, Rucker points out that the beekeeper incurs a 20 minute labor cost per colony to transfer “the four or five frames of brood, bees, and honey stores from the parent colony to stock the nuc colony.”  Boulder Colorado beekeeper, Tom Theobald, sympathizes with the challenges commercial beekeepers are faced with:  “I sympathize with commercial beekeepers.  I can survive the exit of bee keeping from my life.  For these commercial beekeepers this is their life.  They don’t deserve this.”

As the number of bee colonies decline, not only are our crops at stake but so is the business of commercial beekeeping.

Nature: Our Best Medicine

As news of cancer vaccines reaches the press, a future without diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, or any of the other terrifying diseases we face seems a little bit closer. But as researchers work to ensure the healthiness of the human race, it is easy to forget that nature has already spent 3.8 billion years working to ensure the survival of the world and has already found the solutions to so many of our problems.

Monkey Business

Chimpanzee, Willem Van der Kerkhof/Flickr Creative Commons

25% of modern day drugs are derived from plants and researchers are always looking for a way to sort through the thousands of plant species looking for the ones that could help modern day medicine. Fortunately we are not the only ones who look to plants for medicinal help—we have some help from chimpanzees. When sick, chimpanzees go to various plants effectively self-medicating themselves. As researchers study chimpanzees they hope to find more plants that can be used to treat diseases in humans.

Sharks: The Next Line of Defense

Although treatment of disease is important, so is prevention. Sharklet Technologies have discovered a fascinating property of shark skins. Shark skin has already lead to the development of cars that are more aerodynamic and better swimsuits, but its newest contribution is to medicine.

Aliwal Shoal Tiger Shark 33, FLeander/Flickr

The surface of shark skin is made up of microscopic diamonds that has been found to prevent bacteria colonies from forming. As the chairman of the board of directors of Sharklet, Joe Bagan says, “We think they come across this surface and make an energy-based decision that this is not the right place to form a colony.” In other words, the microscopic pattern on shark skin stops germs from sticking and spreading.

As it is that time of year to get flu shots, the spread of germs is on everyone’s mind. Tactivex has taken the Sharklet pattern and applied it to a film that can be put on basically anywhere. When put on a doorknob, for example, this means that the germs on every person’s hand that touches that doorknob can no longer aggregate—effectively stopping the spread of germs through touch transference.

The spread of germs is particularly scary in hospitals where infections can be deadly. As the Sharklet Technology website reports, every year millions of patients obtain urinary catheters and after a week 1 in 4 of those patients will get an infection associated with their catheter.

Staphylococcus aureau, Microbe World/Flickr Creative Commons

Sharklet technology is now currently working on developing a urinary catheter that utilizes the shark skin pattern which can hopefully dramatically reduce the number of catheter-associated infections.

The fact that Sharklet technology naturally inhibits bacteria’s survival and prevents its transfer is particularly useful as we are encountering more and more drug-resistant bacteria. Chemical drugs kill the weakest bacteria, allowing the strongest to survive, resulting in drug-resistance. Sharklet’s natural approach can prevent the emergence of strains of bacteria that we cannot treat while still preventing the spread of germs.

Protecting our Inspiration

This is merely one of many examples of how nature has helped the medicinal world. Just by looking at nature science has found a superglue for bones derived from worms, scotch tape from bugs that could help surgeons everywhere, and much more. It is important to remember that as ecosystems are destroyed and animals and plants become extinct it is not just sad for that species, it hurts us. The world around us can hold the secrets to new technologies and medicine that it spent billions of years developing. As we disregard our environment, we ignore and destroy the inspiration that can save us from one of our greatest threats: disease. Protecting the environment ultimately protects us.

Buy Right at Bi-Rite

Even as awareness of fresh and local diets is exploding in restaurants, schools, stores, and cookbooks, many eaters feel like they don’t know how to prepare their own food. Sam Mogannam, owner of San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market, and writer Dabney Gough released Eat Good Food: A Grocer’s Guide to Shopping, Cooking, & Creating Community through Food to address that very problem.

This book takes its readers through every step of making a meal from sustainable and local ingredients, emphasizing that good food is a fun way to build community, not a daunting challenge. It meets Bi-Rite shoppers half-way, offering recipes for prepared-food favorites found at the deli counter, but also challenging eaters to take a more active role in how they shop and cook, giving directions on how to select seasonal produce and suggestions for questions to ask butchers.

A Bi-Rite shopper gushes, “it was really wonderful to have a recipe take shape in my shopping basket before me, I was in control of this food, and that experience is so much better”.

As Amanda Gold’s San Francisco Chronicle critique explains, “What makes the book particularly valuable is its comprehensive guide to ingredients found in the aisles of Bi-Rite – and in other stores like it – that helps readers become better-informed shoppers. The approach is a natural extension of a store that has built a business, and a community, around doing the same thing”

By bridging the gap of food knowledge that makes so many Americans anxious, unsure, and afraid of cooking their own food from sustainable ingredients, Mogannam and Gough open their reader to participation in the food movement that is gaining momentum in the food system.
And even though, as the owner of Bi-Rite, Mogannam has a clear motivation for touting the benefits of local, sustainable, fresh food such as that which he sells, his book is committed to the larger message of sustainable eating. Instead of giving rigid rules for how to eat, or how to eat his own store’s product, Mogannam teaches shoppers to become engaged in the process, to create their own standards for good food. As Bi-Rite’s marketing director Kirsten Bourne explains, “We don’t have a formal definition of local– what we care about is being able to picture a person or place where food was produced, and liking what we see”. With this Bi-Rite philosophy in mind, Eat Good Food sets out to “empower people to go into a grocery store and ask how food was produced and where it came from, and make shopping a fun opportunity to support food systems you believe in”.
From the wealth of information and inspiration in this book, maybe a few more Americans will start biting into the challenge of doing just that. With his book, Mogannam invites a wider audience to enjoy really delicious food with a dimension of environmental and community consciousness. He says, “I look forward to seeing where this food movement takes us in the next 10 years… good food is deserved by all”.

Colony Collapse Disorder: A New Perspective on the Phenomenon

Bees have been disappearing for centuries.  To some, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) as a discrete phenomenon does not exist.  In an effort to study the cause of this decline, a researcher questions whether the methods of inquiry are scientific.

Bee hives abandoned by worker bees-- Courtesy of mdjdfan/ Flickr Clreative Commons

In a BBC World Service Report from March 2009, “‘No Proof’ of bee killer theory,”  science reporter Matt McGrath stresses that honey bees are “of crucial importance to the local economy.”  It is undeniable that the honey bee is fundamental to the continued agricultural productivity and economic health of America and the world.  In 2006 David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee-keeper, sounded the alarm: he had found his bee boxes empty of bees, no dead bees in the neighborhood, no bodies to be found.   The mysterious disappearance of the bees was to be called “Colony Collapse Disorder.”  But is this decline of the bees really such a new phenomenon?

While scientists are researching the potential causes of this sudden and drastic collapse of bee colonies, and pointing to discrete culprits such as pesticides, fungicides, stress, monoculture food, and mites, it remains unclear whether what Dave Hackenberg and other bee keepers, noted beginning in 2006 was an unprecedented event.  The question then is: is this decline a new disorder, what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder,”  or is it just a phenomenon that has been happening for hundreds of years but that, given this 2006 publicity, has come to be seen as a new phenomenon?

In my previous blog posts, I have focused on the possible causes of CCD – pesticides, and in particular neonicotinoids, fungicides, and viruses – without questioning the basic hypothesis underlying the debate–that Colony Collapse Disorder exists as a discrete phenomenon.    Scientists, according to Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the congressional research service, do not argue about whether the bee colonies are declining.  The colonies are.  There is consensus, furthermore, that this decline is not brought on by a single factor but rather by a multiplicity of factors acting synergistically.

The question remains: why has the decline of bees that has always been integral to bee life been named in 2006 CCD?

Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, states in a November 8, 2011 interview, that the death of bees is part of a natural process:  “Colonies die off.  They always have.  Every bee keeper knows that.  There have been major declines in bee keeping before, even before major chemicals came into use.  It has been historically shown.  It is not a new phenomenon.”  So why is it being treated as a new phenomenon?

Steinkraus points first to the flaw in identifying CCD as a discrete disorder.  Beyond that he also underscores the flawed approach of identifying a potential cause for CCD based on the analyses of dead bees.   Upon analyses of dead bees, Steinkraus points out that scientists have found  certain viruses present among all the dead bees.   It is tempting to conclude, as he says,  that the viruses found among all the dead bees are the viruses responsible for killing them:  “They all died of this virus because they all had this virus present.  However, the presence of microorganisms is not proof of disease.  People are analyzing the bees genetically to see what microbes are present and they are finding zillions of microbes.  Finding zillions of species of microbes present in the bees even if they are known pathogens is no proof of disease.   If someone looks in your mouth, for instance,  […] they find that your mouth houses something like 200 different species of bacteria at all times. […] but these bacteria are not causing disease.  The presence of these microorganisms is not proof of disease.”

Steinkraus underscores the absurdity of such reasoning:

These speculations or opinions, in Steinkraus’ view, about the potential causes of CCD are getting a lot of media attention.  Instead of presenting opinion or speculation as scientific evidence, he claims one should perform scientific experiments on the dead bees in order to find a cause for a decline that has existed among bee colonies for centuries.  People, as Steinkraus points out, are finding ”all these microorganisms and [saying] ‘this is the cause.’ But instead of doing experiments to prove the cause, everybody is just writing these papers left and right and getting all kinds of press.”

Steinkraus points to flaws in reasoning and in scientific method: 1) the assumption that the decline in bee colonies is a new phenomenon  and 2) that the studies of this decline are not conducted in a scientifically sound manner but rather driven by opinion and speculation.  According to Steinkraus CCD, per se, may not be a discrete phenomenon and the methods used to identify the causes of the decline in bee colonies may be questionable.

What goes in to the fracking fluid?

Image Courtesy Halliburton

Halliburton executive becomes the first person to drink fracking fluid.

According to many news sources, in Aug. a Halliburton executive drank fracking fluid at a keynote speech at conference presented by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Halliburton’s CEO Dave Lesar, raised a glass of fracking fluid, made from materials from the food industry, he then asked a fellow executive to show how safe the fluid was by drinking it. What this executive apparently drank is a fluid called CleanStim, which was created by Halliburton this past year.

According to Halliburton’s website, CleanStim includes an enzyme, exthoxylated sugar-based fatty acid ester, inorganic acid, inorganic salt, maltodextrin, organic acid, organic ester, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, polysaccharide polymer, and sulfonated alochol… yes these are big words. The table below better explains what each of these chemicals are, and puts them in terms we can all understand.

Image Courtesy Halliburton

In keeping with their mission to make fracking fluid more environmentally friendly, Halliburton did in fact choose common household ingredients, which seem fairly harmless. The catch is that this is not in fact the case. As a Scientific American article titled “What’s in This Fracking Water?”, points out “the CleanStim fluid system should not be considered edible.”

While Halliburton has given a general list of what’s included in fracking fluid, a study on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) website has a more comprehensive list of chemicals included in fracking fluid. These chemicals include: a friction reducer (KCl or petroleum distillate), a biocide (glutaraldehyde), an oxygen scavenger (ammonium bisulfide) or stabilizer (N,n-dimethyl formamide), to prevent corrosion of metal pipes, a surfactant, a scale inhibitor (ethylene glycol), HCl acid to remove drilling-mud damage near the borehole, a breaker (sodium chloride, a little salt never hurts), a gel (guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose), and an iron controller (2-hydroxy 1, 2, 3-propanetricaboxylic acid). These chemicals are harmful to humans, so it is good that gas companies are trying to make fracking fluid with better chemicals.

The most comprehensive list though, is in a report issue in April by the Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The report describes 750 chemicals that are used by 14 leading oil and gas service companies. According to the committee though, the report is incomplete because: “in many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to provide the Committee with a complete chemical makeup of the hydraulic fracturing fluids they used … [in] 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret.”

While it has been a practice to keep the contents of the fracking fluid a secret, things are slowly changing. Wyoming, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas have fracking-fluid disclosure rule. Other states, as well as Congress have proposed rules that are waiting for legislative action. More companies are also disclosing information about their fracking fluid. This website, created by the industry allows users to search for a particular well in a given country or state. While things are moving in the right direction, until the industry can do away with dangerous chemicals, hydrofracking will continue to present serious environmental problems.

Feeding Constituents Hungry For Change

On Tuesday November 1st, Congresswomen Chellie Pingree, with Senator Sherrod Brown, submitted the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (LFFJA) S. 1773 and H.R. 3286, as part of the 2012 update to the Farm Bill, a major piece of legislation that dictates America’s agricultural policies and programs, and is renewed every 5 years. Pingree and Brown’s bill integrates support for local food producers and consumers into the upcoming adjustments the Farm Bill will see in 2012.

Pingree supports local farmers and consumers, photo courtesy of pingree.house.gov

As Pingree says, “This bill breaks down barriers the federal government has put up for local food producers and really just makes it easier for people to do what they’ve already been doing. It creates jobs on local farms and bolsters economic growth in rural communities.”
And the benefits of local food systems goes beyond economic growth. In a study of farm costs and food miles, researchers led by J.N. Pretty found that if Britain’s globalized food system switched to local food sources (within 20 km of home), the environmental costs would fall from £2.3 billion annually to £230 million annually, a reduction of more than half. The Center for a New American Dream calculates that food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles, in fossil-fuel burning transportation, to reach consumers, and that local farms not only eliminate the pollution associated with transportation, but also, regardless of whether they are certified organic, use less chemicals and protect biodiversity with wider agricultural gene pools, supporting long-term food security.

The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act works toward these environmental benefits by supporting rural, entrepreneurial, community-based, and independent farmers with financial programs, research initiatives, and business incentives and support.

The bill will make Farm Service Agency credit  more accessible to local and regional farmers and ranchers, allocate $30 million annually to Value-Added Producer Grants, improve the Risk Management Agency’s insurance coverage for specialty crops and mixed operations, facilitate Organic Certification, make room for commodity program participants to grow fruits and vegetables, provide Rural Business Opportunity Grants, Rural Business Enterprise Grants, & Community Facility Grants & Loans to local and regional food systems, put $30 million a year towards farmers’ market promotion, give $90 million annually to the Specialty Block Grant program, and create a special budget for local and regional crop and market development.

Pingree and Brown offered the bill to a wave of food-policy advocacy support. It appears to be strategically released to coincide with the Center For Science in the Public Interest’s Food Day, a nation-wide event advocating food, hunger, and sustainability on a grass-roots level with goals of creating food policy. Pingree’s legislative director, Claire Benjamin, explains, “Congresswoman Pingree worked on developing the ideas in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act through the course of the last 10 months with input from a broad coalition made up of 18 farm, nutrition and food security organizations. The timing worked out well to use Food Day as a platform for announcing the bill”. Benjamin also expressed support and encouragement of the first annual Food Day, calling it, “a great success and huge organizing opportunity for people who care about these issues”.

Pingree meeting Food Day participants, photo courtesy of Huffington Post

The quick and concrete government response to the Food Day campaign is exciting to both farmers and consumers, and is being awarded huge support and endorsement from groups such as the National Farmers Union, Community Food Security Coalition,American Farmland Trust, and the National Farm to School Network.

Speaking to Western Farm Press, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Helen Dombalis said, “We applaud Senator Brown and Congresswoman Pingree for introducing this legislation, which is important to farmers and consumers alike”.

However, the actual impact of this bill can be called into question when considering that none of the initiatives are allocated more than $100 million dollars. This seems like generous funding, until we consider that the last Farm Bill, passed in 2008, was a hefty $288 billion dollars.

What’s more, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is planning to reduce the 2012 budget by as much as $23 billion, and indicated that sustainable, community-based initiatives will be cut, saying in an interview, “We’ll have fewer dollars for rural development but we’re looking to partner with non-profit foundations to pick up the slack”. Vilsack expressed a disregard for government responsibility for small and sustainable farmers, even though it that same interview he lauded the merits of organic and small farming, saying, “Four percent of the nation’s farmers are organic but it’s a fast-growing segment. The farms are usually small but provide a great strategy for rebuilding rural America”.

Pingree’s office hopes that the modest monetary requests and soundness of investment will translate to a well-received bill. Benjamin says, “the Local Farms, Food and Jobs act makes up a fraction of the costs of the overall farm bill, and we feel like the spending in the bill makes strategic investments in a growing sector of the economy,” and goes on to point out that several of the proposed initiatives don’t even have price tags attached, saying, “Many of the provisions in the bill are common sense, no cost policy changes that would significantly bolster this growing sector of the economy, and help consumers access healthier, local food”.

Regardless of budget size, the government accountability to constituents’ interest in sustainable food and farming is a promising spark of political action, and with more discussion, awareness, and advocacy, is likely to build momentum. If Food Day championed such legislation in its very first year, Americans interested in food and farm can be optimistic about their potential for further change.

Is it a Virus? Navigating the theories behind Colony Collapse Disorder

To some, it is not pesticides or fungicides, but rather viruses, and in particular the Israeli Acute Paralytic Virus, that play an important role in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). How is one to plot a course around all these differing opinions?

In this age where an abundance of information is at our fingertips, it is easy to give in to a natural desire to jump to conclusions when it comes to suggesting the causes of  Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  CCD  is a complex synergistic phenomenon where a number of factors have been identified as contributing to the decline of the bee colonies.  On this point everyone in the scientific community agrees, says Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the Congressional Research Service.   As part of my research to date, I have focused on pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, that, lacing the pollen, end up being stored in the hive, and on fungicides that wreak their havoc in the heart of the hive,  destroying the bee’s intestinal flora.   Among the other factors identified as playing a role in CCD are viruses.

Viruses behave in a similar manner whether they infect bees or humans.  According to Beeologics, an international firm that focuses on protecting bees from viruses, viruses will infect the host in a variety of manners: through varroa mite bites, through the alimentary track during feeding, or through trauma on the body.  They will spread throughout the colony either horizontally — from bee to bee, from fecal matter or infested food –, or vertically — from the queen to her eggs.  Just as in humans, viruses will strike a colony more effectively when it is weakened by stressors such as overcrowding, lack of forage diversity, pesticide-laden pollen, or the reduced genetic pool of the queen bees.  Furthermore, bad flying conditions that relegate the bees to their hive and lead them to defecate in the hive also have an effect on the spread of disease.

Honeybee with deformed wings-- Courtesy of Klaas de Gelder/ Flickr Creative Commons

Among the many viruses that affect honey bees, the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) has been given particular attention across scientific disciplines.  Given how bees and humans transmit viruses in similar ways, there has been, according to  Science News article, ” Virus Implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder in Bees,” a  “profound synergy within the [research] group bringing together entomology, microbiology, and bio-informatics.”  Closely related to the Acute Bee Paralysis Virus, IAPV, transmitted by varroa mites, is, as Beeologics points out on its website, “the most consistent  indicator of Colony Collapse Disorder.”  First identified in Israel in 2004, IAPV, as science reporter Roxanne Khamsi points out in a News scientist article, causes “bees to develop shivering wings and eventually become paralyzed, leading to death just outside the hive.”   The U.S. strain of IAPV is distinct from the Israeli one and seems to be rapidly changing and spreading throughout the U.S.

Beeologics is very involved in researching this virus.   In a phone interview on November 8, 2011, Eyal Ben-Chanoch, CEO of Beeologics, discussed the experiment his researchers had conducted  on hives to ascertain the role of IAPV in CCD:  “we were able to show in controlled trial that when we inoculate healthy hives with the virus, we get similar symptoms to CCD.  It’s not necessarily a one to one [cause and effect] because other things can do it too, but we showed that when you inoculate the virus into a healthy bee hive after very short period you get CCD-like symptoms.”

Even though the results of this scientific experiment point to the very important  role of IAPV in the decline of honey bee colonies, Ben-Chanoch stressed that this is only one small step in understanding the nuances of the issue.   In discussing the spread of the virus among bees, he underscored the complexities involved in studying infectious diseases: “[The spread of infectious diseases] is not well understood in any infectious disease.  Again, it is science in progress, but if somebody will tell you that they know, they just make statements that are irresponsible.”

Jeff Pettis, Research leader for the United States Department of Agriculture speaks about IAPV and underscores the fact that the findings concerning the correlation between IAPV and CCD are not conclusive:

In my October 27 post, I highlighted the conviction of some people in the industry that pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, played, without a doubt, a crucial role in CCD.  Today, my research led me to viruses and in particular to IAPV which, in the view of researchers at Beeologics, for instance, play a salient role in CCD.

How are we to navigate amidst so many firm convictions?

Professor Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, stresses the need to distinguish between speculation and science when reporting on potential causes of CCD. He hearkens back, in a phone interview with me on November 8, 2011, to the basic experimentation principles of Louis Pasteur, and in particular to the importance of testing hypotheses on randomized samples.  As a scientist he does not like to speculate:

As we continue to explore the factors possibly contributing to CCD, Donald Steinkraus reminds us that science is not a discipline of rapid solutions driven solely by passion but rather a field driven by hypotheses, data, and patient analysis.

Omnivore’s Solution

Vegetarianism seems oppositional to American life; as a culture, we stand fiercely loyal to fast food, barbecues, and steak knives. It is such a part of our national gastronomic tradition that even its proven harm to health cannot deter our meat-eating ways. We have long ignored that saturated fat from animal-protein is connected with cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
But in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations produced a document that would change the world’s understanding of how our food affects our environment. Livestock’s Long Shadow announced “livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport”, creating emissions from feed production, cultivation of feed crops, organic matter losses, feed transport, animal production, and product transportation”.

Even still, most Americans continue their meat-based diet because, simply put, they like meat. Regardless of objective arguments for removing meat, or just beef, from the diet, only 3.2 percent of the American population adheres to a vegetarian diet, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive Service Bureau for Vegetarian Times in 2008.

But in addition to this small population of strict vegetarians, the Harris study found another 10 percent of American adults follow a “vegetarian-inclined” diet, and another 5.2% are “definitely interested” in adopting a vegetarian-based diet.
For many, meat is becoming a lesser, rather than absent, part of the diet. Al Gore, arguably the nation’s most vocal and visible environmental advocate has said, when asked why he doesn’t adopt a vegetarian diet for the environment, “I’m not a vegetarian, but I have cut back sharply on the meat that I eat”. Even an environmentalist can find it hard to give up meat, but more eaters are seeing that just taking steps in the right direction is an important part of addressing the environmental harm of beef.

As Barnard biology professor and food specialist Hilary Callahan states, “A key and incontrovertible ecological principle is that eating lower on the food chain saves energy and makes more food available for more people. This applies for terrestrial systems (avoid beef, pork, chicken, others) and for marine systems (avoid eating predatory fish)”.

Considering that transporting, processing, producing, retailing, storing, and preparing 1 kilogram of beef, cheese, and pork creates as much as 30 kilograms of CO2 while fruits and vegetables are associated with 2.5 kilograms of emissions per kg of edible end-product, even moderate dietary reassessments could dramatically change the food system’s impact on global warming. Regardless of “vegetarian” or “meat eater” labels, a part-way shift from carnivorous to herbaceous meals could have appreciable impacts.

A variety of organizations, from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Humane society to Stanford University are advocating a new, but practical diet. They invite a wider range of eaters by reporting the environmental and health advantages of reducing meat consumption, while understanding that quitting cold “turkey” can be too much to ask.

This trend, dubbed “flexitarianism” has produced a bevy of cookbooks, including The Flexitarian Diet, The Healthy Hedonist, and Everyday Flexitarian, as well as recognition on The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post.

As Vegetarian Resource Group Consumer Research Manager John Cunningham observes, “There have always been “meat reducers”, people who try to limit meat in their diets even if they are not strict vegetarians, but the emergence of the word “flexitarian” in the last 5 years has created a demographic for vegetarian restaurants and products that marketers are excited about, and has made it socially more convenient to be a vegetarian”

Mainstream eaters are being challenged to eat more vegetables, try cooking just one vegetarian meal a week, or buy sustainably-raised, grass-fed beef. The focus of flexitarianism is to introduce a form of vegetarianism that is easy and approachable.

Painting the White House Green

The White House Kitchen Garden (Lelkund/Flickr Creative Commons)

An Educational Garden in the Most Famous Residence in Country

While many school and community gardens are created in playgrounds, on roofs, and in abandoned lots, today we will be visiting a garden that is most definitely not planted on a vacant property. The White House Kitchen Garden is instead located on the beautifully manicured lawns of the most well known residence in the country. The garden, visible to the general public passing by the White House, is located on the South Lawn. Over the past two years, it has become a symbol of health and sustainability, championing Michelle Obama’s cause of ending childhood obesity.

Despite the enormous popularity of the White House Kitchen Garden, the beautifully kept garden on the south lawn has not always been there. Throughout White House history, there have been various attempts to build and maintain a garden, but one of the only full functioning gardens was Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden. The victory garden was planted during World War II in an attempt to encourage others to do the same in order to alleviate food shortages produced by the war effort. Since the Roosevelt’s, however, there has not been a fully functioning White House Garden until the Obama’s came along.

Advocates of sustainable food have been pushing for a White House garden for decades.  In 1995, Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA and founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project, wrote a letter to President Clinton encouraging him to build a garden on the White House grounds in order to help create a demand for sustainable agriculture. “The present administration has the chance to invigorate public dialogue by turning our attention to how food must be at the center of our lives,” she says in her letter. “Talk about it; promote it as part of the schools curriculum; encourage the spread of farmers markets; and demonstrate it with organic gardens on the grounds of the White House and the Vice Presidential mansion.” While Clinton was initially supportive of a White House garden, ultimately, Hilary Clinton planted only a small rooftop garden that did not accomplish Waters’ goal.

Michael Pollan, a writer and activist who focuses on food and sustainability, wrote a letter to Barak Obama in 2008, right before he took office. “Farmer in Chief”, which was published in the New York Times, urges Obama to focus on food.  Pollan urges Obama to create a new victory garden movement, “this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population.” The movement must begin, he writes, with the First Family. A White House garden will create a powerful image – “the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community.” Kitchen Gardeners, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable local food systems, led the “Eat the View” campaign, creating a petition for a White House garden that attracted over 110,000 signatures.

In the spring of 2009, the campaign proved successful when Michelle Obama created a 1,100 square foot garden on the South Lawn. Mrs. Obama started the garden to feed her own family, but also as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to help solve the problem of childhood obesity. The campaign encourages community gardens as “a way to engage members of your community or congregation around healthy, local food.” Mrs. Obama also adds that gardens can serve as an educational tool.

Garden Layout (whitehouse.gov)

And the Obama’s have used the garden for just that purpose. The Bancroft Elementary School, a DC public school located less than three miles away from the White House has been involved in the White House garden from its inception. Fifty students from the Bancroft elementary school helped Mrs. Obama clear a section of lawn and plant the garden in March 2009. Since then, Obama has hosted groups of students at the garden where she speaks to them about eating healthily and sustainably and engages them in planting and harvesting in the garden. The video below is a speech that Mrs. Obama made to students from Bancroft in March, 2010, one year after the garden was started.

The garden, like all presidential actions, is not without controversy. The Obama’s decision to keep the garden entirely organic provoked a response from the Mid-America CropLife Association, who wrote a letter to Mrs. Obama calling for the use of “conventional agriculture” in the White House garden, particularly the use of “crop protection products” (i.e. pesticides). Still, the Obama’s have maintained the plan to keep their garden entirely organic.

October 5, 2011 garden harvest. Michelle Obama harvested vegetables with students from the Bancroft Elementary School (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Less than a month ago, students from the Bancroft Elementary School again joined Mrs. Obama in the garden for the third annual fall harvest. Once the hard work of the harvesting was over, the students, together with the White House chefs, prepared grilled vegetable pizza.

Peter Ganong, a former resident of Washington D.C. has walked by the White House and noticed the activity in the garden. “I was inspired to see that gardening and a connection with the earth and food was a central part of the image of this white house,” he said. And that is exactly the goal of the White House Kitchen Garden – to inspire the public to connect with their food and the environment.

Polls on Hydrofracking in New York Released

New York State residents express their opinions on this controversial issue

Image courtesy: http://freethegreenmonster.com/environment/sign-stop-fracking-karoo-petition

New York State residents are divided on whether they approve of hydrofracking in the Catskills region.  According to a Sept. 21, Quinnipiac University Poll, “New York State voters support by a thin 45 – 41 percent margin drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale because they think economic benefits outweigh the environmental concerns.” Voters in upstate New York City, however, are divided on the issue with 47 percent opposed because they are more worried about the environment and 43 percent support hydrofracking.

While this poll was conducted by an independent organization, some polls are more biased.  In areas where hydrofracking is most likely to occur, there is an opposition of about two-thirds or more to horizontal hydraulic fracturing, due to the injection of chemicals and massive amounts of water into shale to extract natural gas. An Oct. 20, Pulse Opinion Research poll, shows that 72% of Delaware County residents and 69% of Sullivan County residents are against hydrofracking in their town.

In a New York Times blog post, “The Fracking Divide: Who Will Prevail in N.Y.?,” Ken Jaffe of Slope Farms Beef of Meredith, NY, commented on the Pulse Opinion Research poll saying, “The story is the overwhelming local opposition, and the plan of the governor to ally with the gas companies to act against local voters and their governments, and attempt to eviscerate local land use regulation that is guaranteed by the N.Y. State Constitution.”

By looking at more Pulse Opinion Research Data, Jaffe’s comment certainly holds true. When asked “Would you support your town enacting zoning ordinances to restrict natural gas extraction by means of hydraulic fracturing,” 69% of both Delaware and Sullivan counties said yes.

Some New Yorkers are so fed up with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s stance on fracking that they’ve signed petitions which state, “I pledge that I will never vote for Andrew Cuomo for any public office, ever, if he tries to force us to exist with hydrofracking in New York.” While this may seem harsh, many New Yorkers fully support this point of view. One Change.org petition, titled “Cuomo Pledge” takes on this position with 473 out of their goal of 10,000 signatures. On this website, those who sign the petition can explain their reasoning. One particularly troubled New Yorker, Mary Sweeney, stated her very strong opinion:

Gov. Cuomo says he wants to base the fracking decision on science, not emotion or politics. But there has been no study of the cumulative environmental and economic effects of drilling and fracking the tens of thousands of shale gas wells that are projected to be constructed in NY. Even more shocking, despite reports of numerous health problems at drilling and fracking sites around the country, there has been no comprehensive study of the health effects of shale gas extraction. So if Gov. Cuomo allows hydrofracking in NY, he will be making guinea pigs of everyone who lives in a fracking area or downwind of a fracking area or who drinks water from a fracking area. Is this the sort of leadership we want? Please, Gov. Cuomo–stay true to your word and base this decision on science, not politics.

With these opinions in mind, it is no wonder that this is hotly debated issue in New York State.