By Janine Davidson at the Council on Foreign Relations
By Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee in the Atlantic
By Sayed Azam-Ali in The Conversation
By Charles S. Clark in Government Executive
By Walter Isaacson in Time
The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.
Ladybugs can do the work that nasty chemicals used to
Researchers in Japan have discovered a way to selectively breed flightless ladybugs to be used as a “biopesticide” — a natural alternative to chemical pesticides.
Ladybugs have long been considered natural pest-control for gardens and crops, but their ability to fly away encouraged many agriculturalists to instead rely on chemical pesticides that are harmful to the environment. After several generations of being exposed to chemicals, many pests have also been known to develop pesticide resistance.
In an effort to create a practical biopesticide, Tomokazu Seko, a researcher from the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Fukuyama, Japan, conducted research on 400 ladybugs from the Harmonia axyridis species. After selective breeding over 30 generations, he was finally able to develop a non-flying ladybug.
A company in Ibaraki Prefecture has started selling the flightless ladybug as a biopesticide for indoor use. According to a statement from the Biopesticide Industry Alliance, the ladybug has already reduced over 90% of the pest-damage to Japanese mustard spinach.
“The best part is that you can see the ladybugs working with your own eyes,” Seko told the Japan News.
Using an ancient grafting technique, Sam Van Aken's Tree of 40 Fruit can bear dozens of stone fruit varieties
Add this to your truth-is-stranger-than-fiction file: an art professor in upstate New York is modifying plum trees so that each can bear not just one, but up to 40 varieties of stone fruit.
In what feels like the backdrop for a children’s tale — move over James and the Giant Peach; this is the real Giving Tree — Sam Van Aken of Syracuse University has developed a years-long technique that involves grafting buds from various antique, heirloom and native fruit trees onto the branches of a base tree to create one-of-a-kind hybrids. As he explained in a recent TEDx Manhattan talk, “I take a sliver off one of the trees that includes the bud, I insert it into a like-size incision in the working tree, tape it, let it sit and heal in all winter, then I prune it back and hope that it grows.” The result: a single tree that bears 40 varieties of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines and cherries.
“It started as an art project. I wanted people to have this experience where a tree is blossoming in all these different colors or growing all these different kinds of fruit all at once,” Van Aken told TIME. As he began researching the various stone fruits available, however, he learned that there were literally hundreds that aren’t in stores because of their size, color or short shelf life. That led to the project evolving into a conservation effort for hard-to-find varieties. Among his favorite: Greengage plums, which came to the U.S. from France and look like Granny Smith apples.
Van Aken plans to use proceeds from the trees, which he sells for around $30,000 each, to create an orchard that will serve as an archive of native an antique stone varieties. He’s also growing a small grove of the trees in Portland, Maine, where the trees — and their abundant harvests — will be available to the public. Since it takes nine years to graft branches from 40 different fruit trees onto each base tree, chances are Van Aken’s creations won’t end world hunger. But they might get you to think twice about the fruit you eat next time to you bite into a peach.
Modified genes in a key rooster breed has reduced the birds’ fertility
Chicken prices in the United States are reportedly on the rise after a genetic defect caused rooster fertility problems at a time when high prices on other meats were already increasing demand for poultry products.
The standard Ross male, a key rooster breed responsible for fathering up to 25 percent of the chickens raised for slaughter in the U.S., has seen reduced fertility due to a change in its genes, Reuters reports. Poultry producers routinely modify chicken genes to improve yield. As a result, the price of chicken breasts is up about 50 cents per pound and prices in Georgia, a key chicken market, have hit record highs.
Aviagen Group, the world’s largest chicken breeder, discovered the glitch after ruling out other possible explanations for a roughly 2% increase in hatch failure of eggs fertilized by the breed, Reuters reports. Scientists from the company say the genetic tweak made the roosters “very sensitive” to overfeeding.
“We fed him too much. He got fat. When he got big, he did not breed as much as he was intended to,” said Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer for the major chicken producer Sanderson, one of Aviagen’s biggest customers.
The chicken shortage resulting from reduced rooster fertility comes at a time when elevated prices for pork and beef have been increasing demand for chicken as a meat alternative.
Intended as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for beginning farmers, it promises the full range of financial and technical support
The USDA has launched a New Farmers website targeted at young people struggling to get their start in the agriculture industry.
The site brings together in one place a number of programs already available to newcomers: It can help young farmers get off the ground with a variety of loans from the Farm Service Agency, which often provides critical resources to those who are unable to get help from traditional lenders. It provides crop insurance for a fruits, vegetables and grains. And through the Transition Incentive Program, it can facilitate transfer of farmland from retiring farmers to new and socially disadvantaged farmers and vets.
What’s more: Aspiring organic farmers can find help with the cost of certification—which is especially relevant, as organic farmers are younger on average, and the market for organic foods shows no signs of slowing. They can also get help with land conservation and soil health.
As the American farm population ages out (the average is now 58), it is increasingly critical that a new generation is in place to produce our food. “We must help new farmers get started if America is going to continue feeding the world and maintain a strong agriculture economy,” said U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden in the announcement.
If the site proves useful to those getting their start, it just might help launch the next fleet of farmers.
New initiative will combat the decline in pollinators
The White House created a new task force Friday to study and combat the recent precipitous decline in the number of bees in the United States.
The Pollinator Health Task Force will also undertake efforts to increase public awareness of the issue and boost conservation partnerships between the public and private sectors. “Given the breadth, severity, and persistence of pollinator losses, it is critical to expand Federal efforts and take new steps to reverse pollinator losses and help restore populations to healthy levels,” President Barack Obama wrote in a presidential memorandum.
The President’s announcement comes in response to a problem with grave implications for farmers and consumers. At least 90 commercial crops harvested in North America rely on honey bees including nuts, fruits, and vegetables, according to a White House fact sheet. Pollinators also have a profound economic impact: They contribute more than $24 billion dollars to the U.S. economy.
The plan announced on Friday, which includes measures to research the issue and develop pollinator habitats, marks the latest step in the White House’s attempt to address the the decline. The President requested $50 million to combat the program in his 2015 budget proposal.
A new survey found that nearly a quarter of honeybee colonies died over the winter—and that's an improvement over last year.
How bad are things for the honeybee? Almost a quarter of U.S. honeybee colonies died over the past winter, according to new numbers released this morning—and that represents an improvement. The Bee Informed Partnership—a network of academics and beekeepers—along with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed 7,183 beekeepers from around the country over the past year. Those beekeepers are responsible for about a fifth of the managed colonies in the U.S., and after a year in which nearly a third of honeybee colonies died, this past winter was a reprieve of sorts. The loss rate of 23.2% was significantly lower than the 29.6% average loss beekeepers have been experiencing since the partnership began the annual survey in 2006.
(COVER STORY: The Plight of the Honeybee)
Yet even if honeybees had it comparatively easy this past winter, the numbers were still much worse than the 10-15% loss rate that beekeepers used to think of as normal—before honeybee colonies started dying off or simply disappearing thanks to colony collapse disorder, which began occurring with troubling frequency around the middle of the last decade. And there’s also the strange fact that 20% of honeybee colonies died during the spring and summer period last year, even though bees usually thrive in the warm weather. There’s no explanation for that anomaly—the survey began tracking summer losses only this year—which has researchers puzzled. “The combination of winter and summer losses was around 30%,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland and one of the leaders of the bee partnership survey. “That is still troubling.”
Just as troubling: we still don’t know exactly why the honeybee has been struggling in recent years. Actually, it’s not just the honeybee—native wild bees have been dying off in even larger numbers. It’s gotten so bad that yesterday the Xerces Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. government to list one wild bee species—the rusty patched bumble bee, which is now gone from 87% of its native habitat—as endangered. Bees of all sorts provide invaluable service to farmers; the honeybee alone adds $15 billion in value to crops each year by pollinating everything from apples to zucchini. But as I wrote in a cover story for TIME last year, it’s as if there’s something about the world today—the world human beings have made—that has become toxic to one of our oldest domesticated species. “Too many bees are dying,” says Lisa Archer, the food and technology program director at the non-profit Friends of the Earth. “This is not sustainable over the long term.”
(MORE: The Mystery of Animal Grief)
Many experts put much of the blame down to infestations of the Varroa destructor mite. Varroa are microscopic vampire bugs that burrow into the brood cells and attach themselves to baby bees, sucking out the bees’ hemolymph—their blood—with a sharp, two-pronged tongue. The varroa directly weaken the bees they infest, but the bugs can also introduce bacteria and other viruses, which in turn makes the bees that much more vulnerable to any other kind of shock. Varroa infested hives often need to be replaced every one to two years, while clean hives survive for as many as five years. Back in 1987, when varroa first arrived in the U.S., beekeepers managed more than 3 million colonies. Now they’re struggling to maintain about 2.5 million, and the bad economics are driving some beekeepers away from the profession altogether, partly because the struggle seems like such a losing one. The chemical miticides that beekeepers use on the varroa can be dangerous to their own bees—and then it’s only a matter of time before the mites adapt, and the miticide becomes useless. “Varroa destructor is a modern honeybee plague,” said Jeff Pettis, the bee research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at a Congressional hearing on pollinator loss last month. “What beekeepers truly need are long-term solutions to varroa mites.”
The USDA and other groups are working on some of those solutions, including efforts to breed honeybees that are naturally resistant to varroa. But the mites can’t take all the blame. Honeybees are starving as open land—which has the sorts of flowers and plants that serve as a buffet for bees—is filled up with monocultures of corn and soybeans that offer little nutrition. A number of other diseases are afflicting honeybees, including the tobacco ringspot virus, a plant disease that was implicated by researchers earlier this year. What’s more, commercial honeybee colonies may be trucked thousands of miles for work, including the massive and lucrative spring almond pollination in California, which requires billions of bees. The stress of travel can’t be easy on them.
Then there are what are known as neonicotinoid pesticides, which are injected directly into the seed of a future plant. That means traces of the insecticide may always be part of the plant tissue—not at all the case when pesticides are sprayed on crops and can disspiate. A growing but still controversial body of research has implicated neonicotinoid in the death of honeybees, leading the European Union to ban three classes of the pesticides over concern about their impact on bees and other pollinators. Several members of Congress have put forward a bill that would extend that ban to the U.S. A study released last week by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health claimed to find a link between neonicotinoid exposure and low survival rates during cold winters. There’s particular concern that neonicotinoids might have sub-lethal effects on bees—not killing them, but causing enough damage to make them vulnerable to an assortment of other ills. But don’t expect a ban on neonicotinoids any time soon—an EPA review of the pesticides won’t conclude until 2018.
(MORE: America’s Pest Problem)
The chemical companies that make neonicotinoids are, unsurprisingly, skeptical that their products are behind the plight of the honeybee. “Extensive research has shown that these products do not represent a long-term threat to bee colonies,” David Fischer, the director of pollinator safety at Bayer, said in recent Congressional testimony. But the very purpose of pesticides is to kill insects, and no one would deny that such chemicals are almost certainly one of many factors hurting honeybees today. (It’s notable that a recent study found that the diversity of pollinators like bees was 50% higher on organic farms than on conventional farms.) Many independent experts, however, doubt that neonicotinoids should get all the blame. Australia still uses neonicotinoid pesticides, but honeybee populations there are not in decline—something that may be due to the fact that varroa have yet to infest the country’s hives. The recent neonicotinoid study from Harvard has been criticized for feeding honeybees levels of neonicotinoids they never would have experienced in the wild. “[The study] just confuses the issues,” says vanEngelsdorp. “It doesn’t have any bearing on what’s going on.”
Despite the ruinously high levels of losses of recent years, beekeepers have managed to keep the number of colonies in the U.S. stable—and they’ve managed to keep meeting the pollination needs of farmers. Be glad they have; honeybees are responsible for one out of every three mouthfuls of food you’ll have today. But it’s expensive and dispiriting to keep replacing dead honeybees year after year, as researchers scramble to figure out just what’s killing them. Improving trends notwithstanding, we lost a quarter of our honeybee colonies over the winter—and that shouldn’t be good news.
A new Human Rights Watch report finds that child laborers, some as young as 7 years old, who work on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, "get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear"
Children as young as 7 years old are suffering serious health problem from toiling long hours in tobacco fields to harvest pesticide-laced leaves for major cigarette brands, according to a report released Wednesday.
New York City–based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed more than 140 youngsters working on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where most American tobacco is sourced.
They reported nausea, vomiting, headaches and other health problems associated with nicotine poisoning, known colloquially as green tobacco sickness, which is common among agricultural workers who absorb the toxic substance through their skin.
“The U.S. has failed America’s families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms,” said Margaret Wurth, HRW children’s-rights researcher and co-author of the report.
“Farming is hard work anyway, but children working on tobacco farms get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear.”
Much of what HRW documented remains legal. While strict provisions govern child labor in industrial environments, U.S. agriculture labor laws are much looser, allowing 12-year-olds to labor for unlimited hours outside of school on any size of farm. On small farms, there is no minimum age set for child workers.
HRW called on tobacco giants to ensure safe working practices and source responsibly. The global tobacco industry generates annual revenues of around $500 billion, but some 6 million people die each year from smoking-related diseases.
Not everyone favors stricter controls. Republican Kentucky state senator Paul Hornback says he worked in tobacco fields from when he was 10 years old and doesn’t think further legislation is necessary. “It’s hard manual labor, but there’s nothing wrong with hard manual labor,” he told the Associated Press.
Honeybees in Kenya are infested with parasites, but they still thrive — unlike their American cousins. Are there lessons for U.S. beekeepers?
Commercial honeybees might be America’s unluckiest laborers. They’re infested with pests like the Varroa destructor mite and the Nosema ceranae parasite; infected with diseases like the Israeli paralytic virus and the tobacco ringspot virus; dosed with pesticides like clothianidin and imidacloprid; starved of nutrition thanks to crop monocultures; shipped around the country to be worked half to death in almond fields and apple orchards; and victimized by a still mysterious malady called colony-collapse disorder (CCD). It’s little surprise that U.S. beekeepers lost about a third of their colonies over the winter of 2012–13, and if early reports from states like Ohio are any indication, this year could be even worse.
But there’s a place where honeybees are apparently doing much better: East Africa. In a study that came out recently in the journal PLOS One, researchers from Kenya and the U.S. surveyed honeybee populations at 24 locations throughout the African country. And the scientists found that while honeybees in Kenya suffered from some of the same problems as their Western counterparts, the African bees remained much more robust. “I was amazed by the lack of manifestation of ill health in the bees,” Elliud Muli, lead author on the paper, told National Geographic.
What’s protected the Kenyan honeybees? African honeybees rarely encounter the sorts of pesticides that are in heavy use on American farms — and which pose a clear danger to American bees. The African bees also generally stay in one place, while the biggest honeybee keepers in the U.S. will move their colonies thousands of miles for major events like the California almond-tree pollination, which requires an astounding 60% of all hives in the U.S. Without those additional stressors, the Kenyan honeybees seem capable of thriving even in the presence of dangerous pests.
That doesn’t mean that pesticides alone are causing CCD — but they sure aren’t helping, as even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to realize. Last year the EPA ordered changes in the labeling of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to high rates of honeybee deaths and which have been banned in Europe. American honeybees also suffer from a lack of nutrition, as bee-friendly wild spaces are converted into corn or soybean fields that offer them little forage.
A Department of Agriculture program announced this winter will put $3 million toward encouraging farmers and ranchers in the Midwest to plant bee-friendly plants on the edges of their fields. That will help, but far more must be done. As I wrote in our TIME cover story on the subject last year, it’s as if the modern American environment itself is hostile to the health of honeybees. Even the hardest-working members of the animal kingdom can only take so much.