Pesticides stop bumblebees from pollinating apple trees, research shows

The Guardian – Wednesday 18th November

Neonicotinoids are some of the most widely used insecticides on the planet and two separate studies published this week have hardened the evidence that they harm honeybees and bumblebees and have a detrimental impact on their ability to provide insect pollination services – worth an estimated $361 billion worldwide every year.

The first study, published in the journal Nature, and based on research carried out at the University of Reading’s farm in Berkshire, found that bumblebees exposed to neonicotinoids visited fewer apple trees and collected less pollen than unexposed bumblebee colonies, despite spending more time foraging. This resulted in apples with fewer pips and fruit of a lower quality compared to the fruit on trees visited by unexposed bumblebees.

The second study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, examined the difference between toxicity assessments in laboratory trials (which tend to show a negative impact of neonicotinoids) compared to field surveys (which show no decrease in honeybee performance, despite exposure to treated fields). This study showed that while honeybees exposed to thiamethoxam (a type of neonicotinoid)-treated fields do die at a faster rate than unexposed honeybees, the honeybee colony is able to compensate for this by producing more worker bees and delaying the production of drones (which are not involved in pollen and nectar gathering).

In the ongoing PR battle waged by neonicotinoid-producing companies like Syngenta against the scientific establishment and public and environmental health, the results of these studies, and many others before them, are often interpreted in ways that benefits the companies whose interests might be damaged. For example, the study on honeybees clearly shows that exposure to even trace levels of neoticotinoids affects colony behaviour and changes mating patterns, with potentially huge repercussions on the ability of colonies to reproduce themselves safely. But for Syngenta, the fact that there is little change from a colony point of view highlights the safety of continuing to use neonicotinoids as a crop insecticide.

What is really needed is a much broader understanding of the alternatives to conventional pesticides and insecticides that are clearly having a negative impact on the behaviour of pollinating insects. And, that means recognising that continuous arable cropping, year after year on the same fields, is not sustainable. But, as long as large agrochemical companies like Syngenta continue to influence the agricultural agenda, it will be hard to develop farming systems which emphasise sustainability and the long term health of insect pollinators and the wider environment.

America’s obesity epidemic just keeps, well, getting bigger

Grist – Friday 13th November

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US has just released new statistics which show that Americans are getting heavier and heavier. Grist’s Kathy Herzog points out that despite a seeming interest in ‘healthy’ foods, most Americans don’t actually eat healthy foods – hence the weight gain. Consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables has fallen to a stunning new low; less than 10% of people eat their recommended amount of vegetables, and 15% their recommended amount of fruit. It’s a sad day when consumption of fresh food is in decline. ‘Fast food’ has taken over our eating, replacing fresh fruit and vegetables and home-cooked meals. While chains such as Chipotle and Panera are giving ‘fast food’ a healthier twist, it’s important to remember that healthier does not necessarily mean healthy.

Although people increasingly eat their meals out, home cooked food using fresh ingredients remains the healthiest way to eat, cutting down on sugar, salt, and calories compared to the processed food available away from home. But in our time-poor world, making the move from picking up the phone to order a take-away to preparing meals from scratch (particularly when people have never learnt to cook) is really hard. It’s a tough nut to crack, but it’s critical that attitudes towards cooking change, as well as access to good quality, affordable, sustainably-produced food, if we want people to return to eating fresh food and improve their health and wellbeing.

A seismic shift in how people eat

The New York Times – Friday 6th November

Despite the stubborn increase in the obesity rate of adults, which the CDC testifies to in the article above, there is a glimmer of hope for a new generation as eating habits are apparently changing. Even though overall consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has fallen to concerning levels, other statistics find that consumption of vegetables is now increasing among children and young adults. In fact, this piece argues that ‘legacy’ food companies such as General Mills, Kraft and others, are in rocky waters as the Millennial generation looks for healthier options. 

The food industry is suddenly struggling with an image problem and companies are tripping over themselves to clean up their act, cutting ingredients that are hard to pronounce and harder to identify, reducing sugar and trying to reinvent what ‘fresh’ might mean in the processed food world. 

This is all being driven by a quite spectacular fall in consumption and profits related to once popular Trixitems: packaged cereals and fizzy drinks have both fallen by 25% and orange juice by 45% in the last 15 or so years. And we all know that McDonald’s has had falling sales for three years running. So even as Americans continue to gain weight, perhaps the trend is bottoming out and we’ll see a shift in the next generation? Childhood obesity in the CDC report was, at least, not increasing, and there is evidence that the food movement is making progress in raising public awareness and engagement with people about what they eat. But let’s not forget how far there still is to go to truly turn things around. Reduced sugar, 100% whole-grain Trix, isn’t really the answer to our food needs, is it?

No beef allowed: inside the schools that have banned meat

The Guardian – Thursday 12th November

The Guardian has a look at schools embracing veganism and vegetarianism as the core of their school meals’ policy. With large numbers of meat-eaters in both the UK and the US, it might be surprising to realise that some schools have managed to drop meat from the menu. This autumn, the US welcomed the first school in the country to adhere to a vegan menu. The school made the choice to move to veganism in response to a wider school commitment to environmental sustainability, citing the amount of energy and water that goes into producing a kilo of beef. This is undeniably a good thing in terms of getting students to eat more fruit and vegetables. However, in terms of sustainability, there is a wider picture to consider – animals, and grazing livestock in particular, play a key role in the health of our soils, and the vegetables that vegans and vegetarians eat depend on healthy soils.

This is part of the rather complex equation that is often overlooked in arguments to eat less or no meat and one that needs to be considered. Animal manure is critical in feeding the soil biology that makes for rich, fertile soil. Get rid of it in its entirety and you’ve got to find that fertility elsewhere: most industrial agriculture therefore relies on nitrogen fertilizer with huge costs to the environment and human health. There is a necessary and symbiotic relationship between animals and the pasture they graze – it feeds them and they feed it. The problem with the sustainability of meat emerges once animals stop grazing pasture and are instead fed grain, which enables intensive meat production. If we only ate grass-fed meat we would certainly eat less meat but it would be produced in a much more sustainable manner, improving soil fertility rather than depleting it as industrial agriculture currently does.

Intensive farming link to bovine TB

Farming Online – Wednesday 11th November

New research from the University of Exeter has identified a link between intensive farming practices and the spread of bovine TB (bTB). The researchers found significant increases in the risk of a TB outbreak in herds of over 150 cows and also mapped a range of intensive practices that are facilitating spread of the disease – for every 10 hectares of maize production, for example, the increased risk of bTB goes up by 20%. Hedgerows were found to reduce the risk of bTB and other landscape features were found to impact bTB risk. This gives notable support for sustainable mixed farming systems which incorporate extensive grazing and hedgerows; beyond reducing bTB, they also support wider biodiversity and increase soil carbon and fertility.

This is the first significant study to link land management and farming practices to the spread of bTB and, notably, the lead researcher has argued that “If lower intensity production means better animal health, it offers a sustainable long-term strategy in high risk areas.” It should come as no surprise that intensification of animal production is feeding the spread of bTB – it has always been a disease that thrived in crowded conditions.

Photographs: Barbara Eckstein and Roadsidepictures

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