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As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers whether to approve the first genetically engineered (GE) forest tree for commercial use, Center for Food Safety released its new report, Genetically Engineered Trees: The New Frontier of Biotechnology. The report details the potential ecological and socioeconomic hazards of GE trees currently under commercial development.
The USDA is currently reviewing a GE Eucalyptus for unrestricted planting. Eucalyptus is primarily cultivated to provide pulp for paper and “wood pellets,” which are used for fuel. The GE tree, developed by the biotechnology corporation ArborGen, is engineered to grow in colder climates. ArborGen hopes to cultivate GE tree plantations across much of the southeastern U.S.
“Commercializing GE trees could be devastating to the environment," said Debbie Barker, international program director for Center for Food Safety, and editor of the report. “‘Factory forests’ will accelerate and expand large-scale, chemical-intensive, monoculture plantations. We need to understand the risks in order to determine if GE trees are a sustainable way forward or a dangerous diversion.”
GE trees have been promoted under a banner of environmental sustainability. However, the report reveals that GE tree plantations would require vast amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and water. Further, tree plantations reduce biodiversity, can increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to deforestation.
“Eucalyptus is the first forest tree now being considered for approval for unrestricted planting, but some of the largest biotechnology, paper and energy corporations are experimenting on pine, poplar, chestnut and several varieties of fruit trees,” Barker said.
Among the report’s key findings are the following:
- Claims that burning wood-pellets for fuel will help to mitigate climate change are likely false. While turning to wood pellet biomass for fuel does reduce overall sulfur dioxide emissions, emerging science reveals that burning wood pellets increases other pollutants and may not reduce greenhouse gases.
- GE eucalyptus tree plantations will intensify scarcity of fresh water resources in the southeast. A U.S. Forest Service environmental assessment reported that GE eucalyptus water usage is likely to be at least two-fold greater than existing native forests in the southeast.
- Contamination of wild trees is a serious risk. Given trees’ long life-spans and ability to disperse seeds and pollen over vast distances, GE trees could contaminate related wild trees, potentially compromising the health of American forests. Poplar, pine and eucalyptus trees are being engineered to alter lignin content to make it easier to process into biofuels as well as other wood-based products. Because lignin maintains structural integrity and helps repel pests and pathogens, the spread of these genes could be harmful.
- Claims that GE tree plantations will protect forests ignore the evidence. Tree plantations have increased rates of deforestation in many parts of the globe. For example, oil palm plantations have been a major factor in the astounding 60 percent loss of Indonesian forests since 1960. Demand for the products of these plantations creates economic incentives to replace forests with more plantations.
Dr. Martha Crouch, an independent consultant for the report, and an expert on issues of biotechnology, agriculture and the environment, commented: "Commercializing unproven GE trees is too big of a risk to take with so much at stake. Monocultures of GE trees could not only replace complex native forests, but GE trees could also escape from plantations into forests where they could disrupt longstanding relationships between species."
Despite the negative environmental impacts, GE “factory forests” would likely be very profitable for biotech companies. For instance, if GE eucalyptus is approved, ArborGen, the leading biotechnology tree company, has projected its profits will grow from $25 million to $500 million in five years.
Center for Food Safety’s report also includes specific policy recommendations that will better determine if GE trees are a truly sustainable way forward.
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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Two different very different studies were released this week. But if you look at them together, they paint a potentially alarming picture for both pollinators—like bees and butterflies—and the native grasslands and prairies they depend on.
In the first study, the European Environment Agency presented the results from two decades of monitoring butterfly populations across Europe. They show that, “compared to 1990, the European populations of the 17 indicator species have declined by, on average, almost 50 percent”
The report lays the blame for this decline at the feet of intensifying agricultural activities on easy to cultivate land and the abandonment of cultivated grasslands, used for livestock grazing and growing hay, on marginal lands. Both activities end up destroying butterfly habitat, either through the creation of monocultures and the use of pesticides or the reversion of habitat to scrub and forest.
But what if the decline of butterflies also causes the decline of grasslands?
That’s the implication of a different study, conducted in Colorado, where scientist looked at the reproductive success of plants on plots of land in subalpine meadows containing 10 species of native bumblebees. Then they removed one of those species. Computer models had suggested that “plant communities will be resilient to losing many or even most of the pollinator species in an ecosystem” as the remaining bees take up the slack.
But that’s not what scientists found at all. Instead they reported that removing even a single bee species reduced wildflower seed production a third. Why? Because competition decreased, bees stopped specializing in “their” flower and began moving more between different species of flowers which, if you happen to be a flower, does you no good whatsoever. This decline of “floral fidelity” was dramatic—78 percent—and resulted in lower reproductive success by the plants.
Does the same mechanism come into play for butterflies? I don’t know. The studies were of different species, in different ecosystems, and on different continents. But butterflies, like bees, are important pollinators of flowering plants so I don’t think that possibility can be dismissed. The result would be a potentially vicious cycle: plant decline begetting pollinator decline which, in turn, causes further plant decline. At the very least, both studies shine a harsh light on decline of animals that we take for granted at our peril.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Rex Weyler
We know what is killing the bees. Worldwide Bee Colony Collapse is not as big a mystery as the chemical companies claim. The systemic nature of the problem makes it complex, but not impenetrable. Scientists know that bees are dying from a variety of factors—pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming and so forth. The causes of collapse merge and synergize, but we know that humanity is the perpetrator, and that the two most prominent causes appear to be pesticides and habitat loss.
Biologists have found over 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen, a deadly "pesticide cocktail" according to University of California apiculturist Eric Mussen. The chemical companies Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, DuPont and Monsanto shrug their shoulders at the systemic complexity, as if the mystery were too complicated. They advocate no change in pesticide policy. After all, selling poisons to the world's farmers is profitable.
Furthermore, wild bee habitat shrinks every year as industrial agribusiness converts grasslands and forest into monoculture farms, which are then contaminated with pesticides. To reverse the world bees decline, we need to fix our dysfunctional and destructive agricultural system.
Apis mellifera—the honey bee, native to Europe, Africa and Western Asia—is disappearing around the world. Signs of decline also appear now in the eastern honey bee, Apis cerana.
This is no marginal species loss. Honey bees—wild and domestic—perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but the best and healthiest food—fruits, nuts and vegetables—are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world's nutrition, are pollinated by bees.
Tonio Borg, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, calculates that bees "contribute more than €22 billion ($30 billion U.S. dollars) annually to European agriculture." Worldwide, bees pollinate human food valued at more than €265 billion ($350 billion). The bee collapse is a challenge to human enterprise on the scale of global warming, ocean acidification and nuclear war. Humans could not likely survive a total bee collapse.
Worker bees (females) live several months. Colonies produce new worker bees continuously during the spring and summer, and then reproduction slows during the winter. Typically, a bee hive or colony will decline by five to 10 percent over the winter and replace those lost bees in the spring. In a bad year, a bee colony might lose 15-20 percent of its bees.
In the U.S., where bee collapse first appeared, winter losses commonly reached 30-50 percent and in some cases more. In 2006, David Hackenberg, a bee keeper for 42 years, reported a 90 percent die-off among his 3,000 hives. U.S. National Agriculture Statistics show a honey bee decline from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, a 60 percent reduction.
The number of working bee colonies per hectare provides a critical metric of crop health. In the U.S., among crops that require bee pollination, the number of bee colonies per hectare has declined by 90 percent since 1962. The bees cannot keep pace with the winter die-off rates and habitat loss.
Europe Responds, U.S. Dithers
In Europe, Asia and South America, the annual die-off lags behind the U.S. decline, but the trend is clear, and the response is more appropriate. In Europe, Rabobank reported that the annual European die-offs have reached 30-35 percent and that the colonies-per-hectare count is down 25 percent. In the 1980s, in Sichuan, China, pear orchard pesticides obliterated local bees, and farmers must now pollinate crops by hand with feather dusters.
A European Food Safety Authority scientific report determined that three widely used pesticides—nicotine-based clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam—pose "high acute risks" for bees. These neonicotinoid pesticides—used in soils, on foliage and embedded in seeds—persist at the core of the toxic pesticide cocktail found in bee hives.
A Greenpeace scientific report identifies seven priority bee-killer pesticides—including the three nicotine culprits—plus clorpyriphos, cypermethrin, deltamethrin and fipronil. The three neonicotinoids act on insect nervous systems. They accumulate in individual bees and within entire colonies, including the honey that bees feed to infant larvae. Bees that do not die outright, experience sub-lethal systemic effects, development defects, weakness and loss of orientation. The die-off leaves fewer bees and weaker bees, who must work harder to produce honey in depleted wild habitats. These conditions create the nightmare formula for bee colony collapse.
Bayer makes and markets imidacloprid and clothianidin; Syngenta produces thiamethoxam. In 2009, the world market for these three toxins reached over $2 billion. Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto and DuPont control nearly 100 percent of the world market for genetically engineered (GE) pesticides, plants and seeds.
In 2012, a German court criminally charged Syngenta with perjury for concealing its own report showing that its genetically modified corn had killed livestock. In the U.S., the company paid out $105 million to settle a class-action lawsuit for contaminating the drinking water for more than 50 million citizens with its "gender-bending" herbicide Atrazine. Now, these corporate polluters are waging multi-million-euro campaigns to deny responsibility for bee colony collapse.
In May, the European Commission responded, adopting a two-year ban on the three neonicotinoid pesticides. Scientists will use the two years to assess the recovery rate of the bees and a longer-term ban on these and other pesticides.
Meanwhile, the U.S. dithers and supports the corporations that produce and market the deadly pesticides. In May, as European nations took action, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the neonicotinoid pesticides, in spite of a U.S. Department of Agriculture report warning about the dangers of the bee colony collapse.
Also in May, President Obama, signed the now infamous "Monsanto Protection Act"—written by Monsanto lobbyists—that gives biotech companies immunity in federal U.S. courts from damages to people and the environment caused by their commercial compounds.
Common sense actions could restore and protect the world's bees. Experienced bee keepers, apiculturists, farmers, the European Commission and the Greenpeace report, Bees in Decline have outlined these solutions:
- Ban the seven most dangerous pesticides
- Protect pollinator health by preserving wild habitat
- Restore ecological agriculture
Ecological farming is the over-arching new policy trend that will stabilize human food production, preserve wild habitats and protect the bees. The nation of Bhutan has led the world in adopting a 100 percent organic farming policy. Mexico has banned GE corn to protect its native corn varieties. In January, eight European countries banned GE crops, and Hungary has burned over a 1,000 acres of corn contaminated with GE varieties. In India, scientist Vandana Shiva and a network of small farmers have built an organic farming resistance to industrial agriculture over two decades.
Ecological or organic farming, of course, is nothing new. It is the way most farming has been done throughout human history. Ecological farming resists insect damage by avoiding large monocultures and preserving ecosystem diversity. Ecological farming restores soil nutrients with natural composting systems, avoids soil loss from wind and water erosion, and avoids pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
By restoring bee populations and healthier bees, ecological agriculture improves pollination, which in turn improves crop yields. Ecological farming takes advantage of the natural ecosystem services, water filtration, pollination, oxygen production and disease and pest control.
Organic farmers have advocated better research and funding by industry, government, farmers and the public to develop organic farming techniques, improve food production and maintain ecological health. The revolution in farming would promote equitable diets around the world and support crops primarily for human consumption, avoiding crops for animal food and biofuels.
The plight of the bees serves as a warning that we still may not quite understand ecology. Ecological farming is part of a larger paradigm shift in human awareness. The corporate denialists appear just like the Pope's shrouded inquisitors in 1615, who refused to look through Galileo's telescope to see the moons of Jupiter. Today's denialists refuse to recognize that Earth's systems operate within real limits. However, the state religion in this case is money, and the state religion won't allow it. The denialists cling to the presumed right to consume, hoard, and obliterate Earth's great bounty for private profits. But hoards of money won't reverse extinction, restore lost soils or heal the world's bee colonies.
A great reckoning awaits humanity if we fail to awaken from our delusions. Earth's delicately balanced systems can reach tipping points and collapse. Bees, for example, work within a limited range of marginal returns on the energy they exert to collect nutrition for their colonies. When winter bee deaths grow from 10 percent to 50 percent, the remaining bees are weakened by toxins, and the wild habitats shrink that thin, ecological margin of energy return can be squeezed to zero. Surviving bees expend more energy than they return in honey. More bees die, fewer reach maturity and entire colonies collapse. This crisis is a lesson in fundamental ecology.
Rachel Carson warned of these systemic constraints 50 years ago. Ecologists and environmentalists have warned of limits ever since. Bee colony collapse now joins global warming, forest destruction and species extinctions among our most urgent ecological emergencies. Saving the world's bees appears as one more necessary link in restoring Earth to ecological balance.
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