Friday, February 16, 2018

Book Review: Never Out of Season

Rob Dunn grabs your attention right out of the gate in his book Never Out of Season (Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 323 pp). Our monotonous diet, and utter lack of crop diversity is not just stunning, it is frightening. The book's subtitle, How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future, is a bit misleading. First, that applies mostly to Western cultures which are affluent enough to import fruits and vegetables from other parts of the world, continually. To his credit, Dunn addresses global agriculture and food security, going out of his way not to ignore Third World nations, poverty, war, and other factors that influence the ability of countries to feed themselves, let alone the rest of the world.

Indeed, Dunn's historical accounts demonstrate how time and time again human populations has been on the brink of starvation, yet are bailed out by individuals and organizations on the far side of the globe. It has been Russians and others who have had the foresight to save seeds in banks and vaults, preserving crop diversity even at their own personal peril. Meanwhile, governments and industries have blissfully ignored the lessons furnished by famines and crop failures.

Never Out of Season is in many ways a real-life thriller, but the reader is largely left to draw their own conclusions as to who the villains are. There are plenty of victims and heroes, but aside from a small group of henchmen who sabotaged a cocoa tree plantation by deliberately infecting trees with a fungal disease known as witches'- broom, few criminals. At least, they do not have overtly hostile intentions. The problem is, overwhelmingly, neglect, plus failure to learn from history and failure to properly invest in efforts necessary to avert future calamities.

The progress of the Green Revolution creates the narrative arc, from its beginnings around World War II through present day. Humanity quickly became dependent on pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals to increase crop yields and exploit marginal soils. From there, agriculture scaled up, and today it is largely the province of multinational corporations with a primary agenda of profit and patent protection over feeding people. Consumers are left with increasingly processed foods in the supermarket, the illusion of choice, poorer nutrition, and a widening disconnect with farmers. Dunn is less simple and direct in his presentation of the state of agriculture, and how we got here, but is captivating, entertaining, and educational in his language. His research is exhaustive and beyond reproach. The end notes take up forty-six (46) pages.

Readers looking for an unequivocal indictment of industrialized agriculture will have to search elsewhere. Never Out of Season presents a series of cautionary tales that inform, enlighten, and serve as examples of the kinds of catastrophes we are in for if we continue to devalue genetic diversity in our food crops. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are not painted as evil here, but powerful tools that can help advance agriculture provided we do not become as addicted to them as we did to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and phosphate fertilizers.

Dunn also offers hope at the end of the book, successfully energizing and empowering the reader to plant their own yards with vegetables and fruit trees, join in citizen science projects to enhance our collective understanding of agricultural ecology, and to purchase from local farmers those foods they cannot grow. The variety of approaches to agriculture is beginning to diversify, which is a positive trend, but it remains to be seen whether agri-business will respond favorably, or seek to bury smaller entities under patent-infringement lawsuits and other legal strategies.

Paul Ehrlich, in his own endorsement, states that "Everyone who eats should read Never Out of Season. This reviewer could not agree more. Even fans of fiction would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling page-turner replete with colorful and heroic characters, and an ending that only we, the reader, can finish by holding our leaders accountable for funding priorities, environmental regulation, making conservation of heritage seeds an overriding concern, and bolstering consumer protections. We can also shop smarter and grow our own.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Beehives and Detergent Pods

What do the vandalism of beehives and eating laundry detergent pods have in common, besides being dangerous to the perpetrator? They both have gotten undo attention thanks to traditional and social media. Destructive and dangerous behaviors like these tend to make the news precisely because they are unique. The problem is that they become more commonplace the more they are publicized.

Honey bee hives

I was under the impression that beehive vandalism is running rampant lately when in fact there have been only two (2) reported crimes, one in Sioux City, Iowa and the other in Prunedale, California. The number of individual honey bees killed is staggering, no question, but so far these appear to be isolated episodes. That is what the media will do. It will inflate or undermine the reality of what is going on. I wonder now exactly how many teenagers have been eating those laundry detergent pods. Maybe that has been overstated, too.

One other danger of social media and standard media hype is that it can add fuel to the fire. What was a single display of stupidity or vandalism can then result in copycat behavior by others, escalating the damage. I posited the question of what is behind the beehive vandalism to an entomology group on Facebook. One of the prevailing theories was that the Prunedale massacre could easily have been a copycat crime due to the widespread publicity of the Sioux City news story. Insurance fraud was mentioned as a potential motive, along with competing beekeeping businesses, but we may never know. While at least one video out there claims that beekeeping practices are "cruel" and honey bees are basically slaves to humans now, I doubt People for the Ethical Treatment of animals (PETA) or any other animal rights group would harm the bees themselves.

Another interesting point brought up by the entomology group was that we seldom hear about crime in rural areas, which makes a story like the destruction of the beehives all the more attractive to the media. Social media makes almost all geographical locations accessible to traditional channels of news and information, so the two tend to feed each other. Rural crimes, I am told, can be a matter of disgruntled neighbors, vindictive ex-spouses, bored teenagers, or any number of other stimuli.

While I by no means condone beehive vandalism, I lament that the media fails consistently in giving the entire story of apiculture. Honey bees are not native to the New World (North, Central, and South America), but have been introduced here. In the U.S., the first colonies of honey bees were brought by settlers to Jamestown in 1622. They needed the bees to pollinate the crops they imported, not knowing whether native North American bees could, or would, do the job. Furthermore, beeswax was an essential product back then. Honey was perhaps the least of it.

Since then, apiculture has become an industry, one that markets itself vigorously and creatively. It has become a giant enterprise because agriculture has scaled to the point where there is no other way to effect pollination. Indigenous plants and landscapes have been marginalized at best, removing native bees from the picture. The scale of agribusiness is what has taken us to the point where, and I exaggerate to make a point, one non-native species is all that stands between us and starvation.

That was my thought when I learned of the attacks on the hives. Should someone or some organization want to crash a lot of crops, decimating honey bees would be a good start. Fortunately, even with a great deal of ambition and manpower, that scenario is next to impossible to achieve.

More of these for NATIVE bees!

So, a twelve- and thirteen-year old have been arrested in connection with the destroyed hives in Sioux City. Besides fines, a criminal record, and potential incarceration, I wonder if they might be sentenced to community service in....apiculture. Indeed, maybe those kids we label as idiots for ingesting laundry detergent pods could start a youth beekeeping trend instead. Better yet, get them to work making "bee condos" for native, solitary bees that can be hung up around community gardens and local, small-scale farms. Get that activity on Youtube channels. Time for constructive, not destructive, initiatives my young friends.