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Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery

Kirk Johnson, New York Times
It has been one of the great murder mysteries of the garden: what is killing off the honeybees?

Since 2006, 20 to 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States alone have suffered “colony collapse.” Suspected culprits ranged from pesticides to genetically modified food.

Now, a unique partnership — of military scientists and entomologists — appears to have achieved a major breakthrough: identifying a new suspect, or two.

A fungus tag-teaming with a virus have apparently interacted to cause the problem, according to a paper by Army scientists in Maryland and bee experts in Montana in the online science journal PLoS One.

Exactly how that combination kills bees remains uncertain, the scientists said — a subject for the next round of research. But there are solid clues: both the virus and the fungus proliferate in cool, damp weather, and both do their dirty work in the bee gut, suggesting that insect nutrition is somehow compromised.
(6 October 2010)
UPDATE 11 Oct: See, however: What a Scientist Didn’t Tell the New York Times About His Study on Bee Deaths from Forbes/CNN. -BA


Wes Jackson On The Need To Reinvent Agriculture

Fred Bahnson, The Sun Magazine
… I had come to Kansas to meet one of its native sons, a man who has dedicated his life to changing the way we grow food. Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist, president of the Land Institute, and, at age seventy-four, one of the godfathers — along with farmer and author Wendell Berry — of the sustainable-agriculture movement. Thanks to bestsellers like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, that movement has gone mainstream. We’ve been told that our food system is broken, and the fix is to grow food organically and procure it locally. The organic farmer eschews pesticides, spreads compost instead of nitrogen-based fertilizer, and sells her Hakurei turnips at the Saturday-morning market. All big improvements, says Jackson, but ones that stop short of a solution. They are answers to problems in agriculture, when we have yet to address the problem of agriculture itself, a ten-thousand-year-old bad habit that Jackson believes is humanity’s original sin.

When our ancestors in the Zagros Mountains of Iran first tilled the ground to plant wheat, they set in motion the ongoing depletion of the topsoil, which Jackson calls the “capital stock of the planet.” Unless labor-intensive steps are taken to prevent it, every time the earth is plowed to plant an annual crop, some topsoil is washed away by rain or carried off by the wind. According to Jackson, we’re plowing through our soil bank account and sending those riches downstream to the ocean, never to be seen again. He believes the loss of topsoil is the single greatest threat to our food supply and to the continued existence of civilization.

Jackson’s life’s work is based on a question: Is it possible to avoid erosion by mimicking nature instead of imposing flawed human design on it? Kansas’s native prairie was a self-sustaining ecosystem fueled by nothing more than soil, water, and sunlight for millions of years before modern farming came along. That prairie has been replaced with huge fields devoted to single crops — called “monocultures” — that can be planted only by tilling the soil and kept alive only by applying petroleum-based, nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Those amber waves of grain form the base of our diet: the wide bottom level of the food pyramid. For the past thirty-three years Jackson and his fellows at the Land Institute have been crossbreeding such annual grains with their wild perennial relatives, which grow back season after season on their own without tilling and excessive fertilizer, can be planted in mixtures called “polycultures,” and have deep roots that actually prevent soil erosion. The only thing these perennials don’t do is produce the edible seed that provides some 70 percent of our food. Jackson hopes to change that by breeding an edible perennial grain to replace our monoculture crops of annuals, part of a revolutionary farming method he calls “natural-systems agriculture.” The Land Institute is also domesticating wild perennials, mostly close relatives of current annual crops.

The complete text of this selection is available in our print edition.
(October 2010)


It Pays Not to Cultivate GM Crops, Survey Finds

Steve Connor, Independent/UK
The first economic analysis of growing genetically modified crops on a wide scale has found that the biggest winners were the farmers who decided not to grow them.

[] The study, which looked at maize yields in the corn belt of the United States, found that farmers who continued to grow conventional crops actually earned more money over a 14-year period than those who cultivated GM varieties.

All farmers benefited from the significantly lower level of pests that came about after the introduction of GM maize to the US in 1996, but the conventional farmers who continued to cultivate non-GM varieties also benefited financially from not having to pay the extra costs of purchasing GM seeds.
(8 October 2010)


Chaco deforestation by Christian sect puts Paraguayan land under threat

John Vidal, Guardian
Wildlife and the world’s last uncontacted tribe both at risk as Mennonites turn Chaco forest into prairie-style farmlands

… the vast Paraguayan wilderness of thorn trees, jaguars and snakes known as the Chaco is being transformed by a Christian fundamentalist sect and hundreds of Brazilian ranchers.

Worldwide food shortages and rock-bottom land prices in Paraguay have made the Chaco the last agricultural frontier. Great swaths of the virgin thorn forest once dubbed Latin America’s "green hell", are being turned into prairie-style grasslands to rear meat for Europe and grow biofuel crops for cars.

Recent satellite imagery confirmed that about one million hectares, or nearly 10%, of the virgin, dry forest in northern Paraguay has been cleared in just four years by ranchers using fire, chains and bulldozers to open up land. By comparison, Brazil claims to have nearly halted its deforestation of the Amazon.

Landowners in the Chaco, the second-largest South American forest outside the Amazon, must by law leave trees on 25% of their land but the region’s remoteness and the government’s lack of resources for monitoring or prosecuting law-breakers has encouraged rampant, illegal felling of the dense, slow-growing forest.

The consequence, say conservationists, including David Attenborough, is a growing ecological disaster with widespread erosion and desertification taking place in one of the world’s most fragile and diverse environments.

… About 20,000 Indians lived in the area for centuries but the land was never colonised by western groups until the 1930s when fundamentalist Mennonite sects from Russia and eastern Europe were given large areas, to allow them to avoid communist persecution.

As in Brazil, the indigenous people were largely wiped out and then deprived of their ancestral land.

The Mennonites, who include the traditional Amish sect of Pennsylvania, believe in a strict interpretation of the bible and often seek isolation in remote areas. But the Chaco land rush, which has seen prices rise from under $10 a hectare to over $200 in a few years, has made the sect worth at least $500m.
(5 October 2010)
It’s sad to see the role of the Mennonites in deforesting the Chaco. I think it is inaccurate to call them "fundamentalists" as the article does. In fact, the Mennonites (related to the Amish) come from a completely different tradition than modern Christian fundamentalists. The Mennonites are one of the pacifist Peace churches. The Mennonite Central Committee has a good reputation. One would think that this is one problem in which the MCC would feel more responsibility than in others. -BA