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Would vested interests starve the world?

In his latest book entitled Bottleneck sociologist and ecologist William Catton Jr. explains in detail why he believes human society is destined for a major dieoff, a "bottleneck" from which few survivors will emerge.

One cause, he says, is an array of vested interests who manipulate the media and the power structure, oblivious to the consequences of their actions. Many would say that this is business-as-usual. After all, what do we expect when governments are thoroughly dominated by the industries they are supposed to regulate? As a result, we may say, a few more people will be maimed or killed or maybe just ripped off than would otherwise be the case. But, would such interests be so crazy as to persist in their manipulations when faced with compelling evidence that suggests their actions could result in widespread starvation?

Apparently the answer is yes. Two examples illustrate this possibility. Many readers may be familiar with the rapid decline in honeybee populations worldwide due to what is now called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD has been attributed to various causes including mite infestations, climate change, cell phones and pesticides. New evidence and observations suggest that the main culprit is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids--which you might rightly guess are related to nicotine. These pesticides are neurotoxins designed to disorient and paralyze insects. They are not only sprayed, but also applied to seeds and therefore become lodged in the fibers and nectars of plants, killing insects who suck nutrients from such plants. (One of the reasons these pesticides are so popular is that their toxicity to mammals is low.)

France, Germany, Italy, and Slovenia have severely restricted or banned this class of pesticides. Ironically, Germany is home to Bayer, one of the largest manufacturers of neonicotinoids, a company which continues to profit from hefty sales abroad. In the aftermath of the bans and restrictions, bee populations have quickly recovered. Naturally, this is not absolute proof that the bans generated the revival. But as the evidence continued to mount that neonicotinoids are strongly implicated in CCD, these European countries applied the so-called precautionary principle. Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to something as critical as food, and honeybees are pollinators for as much as a third of the world's food supply.

Other nations have been slow to act because of pressure from the agricultural chemicals industry. The industry's hue and cry is that there is no definitive proof that neonicotinoids are a central cause of CCD. But, of course, the industry has the burden of proof backwards. If the industry is going to put one-third of the world's food supply at risk, then it ought to prove that its products are harmless. That would cost money, lots of money, and it would mean that many new chemicals with expensive development costs might never be approved. Naturally, the industry wants the burden of proof to fall on government and university scientists spending public money to prove a pesticide is dangerous. Nice arrangement! For the industry, that is.

A more recent revelation is that glyphosate, the world's most widely used herbicide, may be setting us up for a major crop failure worldwide. Sold primarily under the trade name Roundup, the herbicide has been central to chemical and seed giant Monsanto's strategy to lock-in alfalfa, corn, cotton, canola, soybean, and sugar beet growers who must buy the company's genetically engineered and patent-protected seeds every year from Monsanto if they want to reseed their fields with herbicide-proof crops.

Now a leaked private letter from an agricultural researcher to the secretary of agriculture seeking funds to research possible connections between the herbicide and increased levels of plant and animal disease has called into question the safety of this herbicide. Apparently, glyphosate promotes what is now being called Sudden Death Syndrome in plants by making them more susceptible to soil-borne diseases.

This might not be so urgent an issue if it were relegated to crops that were of minor importance in the food supply or if the size of the genetically engineered crop were small. But neither is the case. Keep in mind that some 80 percent of all calories consumed by humans originate as grains or oilseeds. (A significant portion of these, of course, is used as feed for dairy and meat production.) In 2010 in the United States, the world's major grain and oilseed exporter, 90 percent of the soybean crop was Roundup Ready (i.e. glyphosate-resistant) as was 70 percent of the corn. For the world the numbers were lower but considerable: 77 percent for soybeans and 26 percent for corn. A major decline in yields of these crops could certainly result in sky-high food prices and therefore hunger and starvation for many of the poorest in the world.

One would think that authorities would be rushing to determine whether such dangers exist and how severe they are. But while many agricultural governmental agencies are aware of the concerns, little is being done. Perhaps it will take a major harvest catastrophe to convince policymakers that the dangers are real. By then, of course, it will be too late for many. But, at least the agricultural chemical interests will be pleased that their political and financial muscle extended profits right up to the moment when it became clear to everyone why the harvest failed.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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