Monday, June 22, 2015

A little bit of doubt would be in order here, I feel

I tend to buy into the neonicotinoid hypothesis for problems with bee populations within the United States. That's the focus of this recent long article in New York magazine as well. There was a long complaint at the end of the article focused on the stovepiped regulations of human-pesticide interactions, something that I have some sympathy for*. But then there was this passage, where the article's main protagonist, a bee farmer, goes a bit off the rails: 
He pauses. “My wife … did I tell you about the insect-bite deal?” He hadn’t. “About four years ago, about this time, she gets a bite. She doctored it, and it seemed to get a little better, but probably a couple of weeks later it just starts going bananas. I said, ‘We must have a dead mouse or something.’ She goes, ‘No, it’s my leg.’ Yellow crap was just oozing out through her skin. She goes to the doctor, and the doctor sends her to a dermatologist at Geisinger Medical Center, which is the Mayo Clinic of the East. 
The dermatologist there said, ‘My boss, the chief dermatologist, would like to visit you.’ He said, ‘First of all, well, you know you had an insect bite, probably a mosquito bite.’ He said you got an infection and something got in there. Then he said, ‘Do you play golf?’ No. ‘Do you have your lawn treated?’ No. ‘Do your grandchildren play sports?’ Yep. ‘Do you walk on the field?’ Oh, yeah. ‘That’s probably pesticide poisoning that caused that.’ ” 
Hackenberg takes a breath. “She almost lost her leg. That’s how bad it was.” He trails off. 
I am sure there are pesticides that can cause tissue damage with sufficient exposure, but something tells me that you need a lot of pesticide exposure to make that happen.

(What's the mechanism for it, anyway? That the mosquito was full of pesticide, and then it bit her leg and then it transferred to her leg and that's what caused it?)

*Regulations of anything within the United States tends to be a weird hodgepodge of city, county, state and federal laws. No one seems to know anything, and no government official tends to go out of their way to make sure that general citizens, businesses or anyone can have a full and complete understanding of what's legal and what's not. Heck of a way to run a railroad. 

32 comments:

  1. My big concern is that if we ban neonicotinoids, what will replace them? Organophosphates? Carbamates? Pyrethroids? None of those have better selectivity and the first two are extremely toxic to people and wildlife. Of course, we could just not use pesticides and accept that 1/3 of our harvest will go to waste each year.

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    1. Ensuring our population will fully join the developing world - half our citizens and a swath of our government are plugging for this.

      No doubt on the gov't end, they'll pass something without understanding it. Or even reading it.

      The hell with university physics and accounting, maybe there should be a requirement for basic literacy and a binding promise to employ it.

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    2. There are ways to farm that will not cause 1/3 loss of crops. I know it's weird to use old school cool, like planting various things next to each other, allowing chickens to roam through the crops and a few other techniques that make it possible. This also leads to my problem with Monsanto et. al. They promote poor practice. Spray it and forget it. If you ever visit a farm that has this stuff dialed in, it's really amazing to see. It is more work.

      Besides, more than 1/3 of the harvest already goes to waste on the consumer end.

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    3. Or you could use Integrated Pest Management, which has been around for 20 years, but for some reason the pesticide inertia has been fighting against it. You know, like use natural predators, sterile competitors of your pest, or even do research on the particular insect you want killed so that you could figure out its sex and aggregation pheromones and cause mating disruption or capture of it, instead of blanket killing every insect. They'll probably evolve a new pheromone in 20 years, but your chemists can keep on top of that the same way they develop new pesticides when resistance develops.

      The volumes of pheromones required are a lot smaller, and it's easy to retro-engineer a blend, so maybe patent protection and profit margins wouldn't be as attractive for pesticide companies. Good to see them getting some incentive from the lawmakers.

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  2. Considering that 40-50% of food in the US is wasted anyway perhaps we could shift some spending from application of pesticides to food conservation and more rational distribution. I wonder what is the break even point here.

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    1. That's an interesting thought that I suspect will attract more consideration as population pressures increase. For now, it would offend the sensibilities of a free market society that demands strawberries in the dead of winter.

      I may be off on my numbers, as I'm going from memory from the Encyclopedia of Agrochemicals. Take this with a grain of salt considering its source:

      "Up to 40 percent of the world's potential crop production is already lost annually because of the effects of weeds, pests and diseases. These crop losses would be doubled if existing pesticide uses were abandoned."

      http://www.croplifeamerica.org/crop-protection/benefits

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    2. Actually, it's probably not far off. Inefficiencies in storage and distribution in the developing world account for one hell of a lot of loss.

      As for "food conservation and rational distribution" - this is misplaced liberal guilt masquerading as legitimate social concern. Most food loss takes place in the developing world. Some of this owes to problems that are easily solved (i.e. secure storage, more efficient distribution). There has to be a willingness to address the real issues. It is not the place of the white guilty liberals of America to impose a solution on American citizens (who, let's be honest, have *nothing to do with food storage conditions in India and China*) that pleases them and solves absolutely nothing.

      As for "strawberries in the dead of winter" - hell, if Yuma grows it, we can have it. Legitimately.

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    3. Perhaps we don't need to abandon pesticides completely. Perhaps we can use them to support other well established pest management techniques like crop rotation or growing several crops together. I recall herding turkeys as a very effective insect control measure. This is also good for turkeys and their consumers, too since overgrown GFP-infused :) 50 lb turkeys don't chase insects (or anything...) that much.

      The winter strawberries will become more expensive together with CA almonds. I think that as tox screening becomes more effective the R&D productivity of agro-chemical sector will resemble that in pharma and the trend of leveling off and declining usage of pesticides (Encyclopedia of Agrochemicals v.1 p.414) will continue.

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    4. "The winter strawberries will become more expensive together with CA almonds." You are right about this - sadly most of what CA is experiencing was completely avoidable, and had more to do with bad policy decision-making and inappropriate (even nonsensical) priorities than the ag industries. The consequences already include massive property-rights violations and the destruction of multiple CA industries, and eventually seem likely to include federally-imposed violations of state water rights compacts that already heavily favor CA. If anything, imposed changes will actually worsen the existing water situation, not improve it. Go Moonbeam!

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    5. @SJ - 40-50% is a very high estimate, even for the FAO. I would suggest the actual percentage is lower.

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    6. I helped a former boss write a grant for a Food Science project, and I had to read a few reviews back then. If I'm remembering right, 40-50% sounds about right for food wastage, but it varies from crop to crop (and from crop to meats but I only cared about vegetables and fruits at the time). Strawberries can get higher than that number actually. Transportation is actually pretty efficient since trucks and containers are cooled and logistics are tight, especially if it's the same continent, and more is lost on the field. A lot of the wastage comes from sitting on a supermarket shelf, and then eventually going bad before it's bought, but even more is wasted by the consumer by not eating it after preparation, or it just going bad in the fridge. That's why antibacterial and anti-ripening coatings are a bit of a hot field right now.

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    7. No, even the FAO and the NRDC (an "environmental advocacy" org.) claim "only" up to 40% for the US - and they are inclined to exaggerate where these things are concerned. The USDA claims 30-40% - and because of the inclusion of the EPA in these types of studies, this is also a somewhat suspect figure.

      By way of comparison, China has between 28-33% food waste "from the table" alone - this in a country with about 128 million people threatened with starvation. This is *after* substantial field, storage and transport losses. In the US these are relatively mitigated, but in the developing world these latter problems are the primary issues. The major problems with food supply/waste have to do with field, storage and transportation/logistical problems in the developing world.

      There has been a recent campaign on food waste in the developed economies including the US. I have heard some truly surprising proposals of late, including "re-educating the consumer about what is acceptable" in the supermarket which smacks faintly of coercion. There is reason to believe that the motivations for this are rooted in "climate change" advocacy and beliefs that food distribution should be handled differently. The problems with this are that "climate change science" is *highly* questionable, government redistribution programs have a staggeringly poor record and exacerbate disasters, and finally, that the actions of the American consumer have very little impact on field losses and food storage conditions in Africa and Asia.

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    8. There is plenty of waste in America 'at the table', and at least in my family, when I was growing up there would be uneaten leftovers from two days ago thrown out daily. There is also a lot of food wasted in the service industry (restaurants, hotels, etc...); about the same as by households. My dad quit being a chemist and now owns a restaurant, and there are plenty of people who don't finish 10-20% of their 'rack of lamb' (or half of it like my wife) or some fish dish never gets ordered so a whole bunch of fish is thrown out at the end of the week. Or peppers start sagging and are thrown out. I really don't see how it's hard to get to 40% if that is taken into account. In North America, customers are really enticed by big portions, that they can't finish, but it pleases them subconsciously and they'll come back to the restaurant. I was at first surprised when I looked at the high estimates for wastage, but it really does make sense thinking back to my own childhood, if you include all other factors like field wastage, transportation, etc.. as well.

      Anyways, I don't think that educating consumers, and trying to improve the situation with regards to food waste leads, necessarily, to a communist redistribution system. Or that it's based in the 'climate change lobby'. That just sounds like bringing your own conspiracy theories to an unrelated argument, especially since I don't think it's an issue that's really cared about. It's households and restaurants themselves who will be concerned with this since ultimately it means saving money if you can reduce waste.

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    9. I am actually OK with not having the best choice of produce 15 min before the store closes. I would actually think that the store manager does his job sizing up deliveries. Perhaps this comes from growing some of our own stuff (strawberries! Yum!) in my childhood.

      As to the % I don't want to force my numbers. Whatever the number is, it is too much for me. Wikipedia lists 295 kg per person per year of production and direct waste. Seems like a lot to me.

      We are in agreement that all the "consumer education" does is to provide employment for educators and confusion to customers. I don't care much for governmental distribution programs either. I think that many NGOs (not all of them!) do a much better job teaching people to care for their food and water and providing the means.

      On the other hand I am encouraged to see non-governmental efforts to reduce waste. Here in the North East several charities organize picking leftovers from local farms after the harvest. Depending on the crop there is 10-20% of vegetables and fruit that cannot be picked mechanically. That food feeds a lot of people here.

      There are other encouraging initiatives under a common term "food rescue". Right now this is mostly geared toward people who don't get enough food or not enough good food. The experience will be useful when the food prices start creeping up in a more serious way.

      On the subject of home grown strawberries. Thirty years on I still remember the flavor of sun drenched freshly picked strawberries. That flavor cannot be matched at the supermarket. We used zero pesticides and only Ca/Mg inorganic fertilizers. The crop was stretched over 5-6 weeks by using a bunch of different varieties, mostly hand-me-downs from neighbors and friends. Over the 15 years of gardening we lost three crops, one due to a crazy rainy May and two consecutive years after the Chernobyl blew up.

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    10. This initiative is under the aegis of the IFT (that's the Institute of Food Technologists for the uninitiated):

      http://futurefood2050.com/about/

      It's fair to say "climate change science" is helping drive this.

      http://futurefood2050.com/ending-food-waste-in-the-developed-world/

      ...and even the venerable Nat'l Geographic has weighed in on links between the two:

      http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/150122-food-waste-climate-change-hunger/

      So, in response to your scurrilous assertion, it is entirely correct to say that 'motivations for this are rooted in climate change advocacy and beliefs that food distribution should be handled differently.' No unrelated conspiracy theory needed, anyone can look it up and see the linkage between the topics for themselves.

      As for whether "climate change science" is highly questionable, it's hard to say exactly when Mann, et al. jumped the shark. Was it with proclamations of "the science is settled?" Was it with "There is a consensus?" Was it with the revelations of cherry-picking statistics to fit the "theory?" Using statistics generated from computer models to confirm those same models? Revising the data to fit the "theory?" Or was it with silencing contradictory hypotheses? The list of offensively unscientific behavior is impressively long at this point, and I think it's time we took these people with all the seriousness they have earned - which is to say politely, not much.

      As for government redistribution programs, did I use the word "communist?" I did say that government redistribution programs have a staggeringly poor record and exacerbate disasters - and that's where this is headed. Supermarkets are already being targeted in the UK via "social activism" and legislation to accomplish redistribution. Is it so far-fetched to think it won't happen here, and that the end results may not be beneficial?

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    11. Hey, my family also grew strawberries when I was small, but we had a relatively small field for them. They tasted better than the ones in the store, and I think it's due to this (from an old article from C&En news):

      pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/85/8544cover.html

      I think ours were the natural ones that didn't live for too long. But also there was a forest beside our farm, and some fields beside the forest. Often you could find wild strawberries there in the right time and those were far, far smaller than even our non-modified human strawberries, and the flavor was very intense. It's really one of those berries that human farming did not get 100% right.

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    12. "So, in response to your scurrilous assertion, it is entirely correct to say that 'motivations for this are rooted in climate change advocacy and beliefs that food distribution should be handled differently.' No unrelated conspiracy theory needed, anyone can look it up and see the linkage between the topics for themselves."

      Sorry, I just don't see how we got from a technical argument over percentage of food waste to this point. I guess you believe those numbers are suspect for a reason... Maybe it's my fault to a good degree.

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    13. Yep, wild strawberries were fantastic and their preserves never lasted through the winter. We also grew some "tamed" wild strawberries. Those were a bit larger than the "wild" wild and much more temperamental than the big fat strawberries. All was good until that Chernobyl day... Never again I could make myself trust what I picked. Not after hearing the staccato of the G-M counter over my jacket.

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    14. Where was your farm SJ, in the Kiev region? I think you should have been alright if you were based east of Konotop. Although, the area around Konotop is maybe still iffy. The whole of Kharkov province it was fine to grow crops the next year.

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    15. I was in a different country and nowhere close to Kiev. The fallout traveled over Europe in a few hot clouds. Outside of the USSR the NNE cloud whacked Finland, Norway, and Sweden and went on to Spitsbergen and Alaska. The west cloud went over Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austra, Germany, France, and over Greenland.

      The idea of what was fine to farm was more of a mind set than the governmental permission. What we owned wasn't a farm anyway, just a small house garden. Epidemiological proof of deaths due to radiation is hard to come by and I am pretty sure more people died from allergic reaction to botched distribution of KI dose. I do know that within a year we lost all pets and there weren't any cats and very few dogs left in the neighborhood. For some years after 1986 we were told not to pick wild berries and mushrooms because of concern over bio-accumulation of some isotopes.

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    16. "Sorry, I just don't see how we got from a technical argument over percentage of food waste to this point. I guess you believe those numbers are suspect for a reason... Maybe it's my fault to a good degree."

      First, I've read the related material, and there are grounds for concern about where this is headed. In the literature there are discussions about forcing unsound dietary changes (also in keeping with "climate change science" activism), forcing conformation to new standards, and using social media activism in public shaming.
      Second, "climate change science" is a principal driver of these initiatives. Crap "science" makes for worse policy.
      Third, some of the organizations involved in disseminating the argued percentages have been known to lie in the furtherance of their causes. The EPA has assembled a record there.
      Fourth, it helps to have some perspective. When you understand that most of the world wastes more food than the US does, then you can appreciate that the problem is for the most part not at home.
      Fifth, frequently this is posited in terms of coming to grips with a projected global population of 9 billion. The problem is, food waste in the US has much less impact than any of the following:
      1) increasing political and social stability in agriculturally productive regions;
      2) reducing crop and herd depredation;
      3) developing crops that are more robust and with greater nutritional value – furthermore winning political and social acceptance for said crops;
      4) improving preservation and sanitation technologies to reduce spoilage and health risks that are context-usable;
      5) improving preservation and development of potable water sources.
      ...so why is it touted as a solution?

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  3. Why single out the US - the record is even worse elsewhere on the planet. Smacks of redistributionism and liberal guilt complexes to me.

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    1. I singled out the US for three reasons:

      - I am here, so it is easy to observe local habits. This is a personal reason and it applies only to myself.
      - The numbers are large enough for me. They may be larger somewhere else, but they are large enough here to appeal to me. Again, this is a personal reason.
      - The US is lucky enough to have the means to test a variety of measures. Any experiment can be large enough to be credible, it can fail without major consequences, and it can we observed and critiqued in real time with limited censorship.

      I have had both redistributionism and liberal labels thrown at me before. Funny thing is that committed liberals tend to accuse me of being too right leaning. I am OK with either or both or none because they are irrelevant to what I think and do. Being a liberal or a conservative is a statement of faith in a doctrine. I don't have much faith in any doctrine, and I say it without any sense of guilt.

      I am a technocrat, which means I have faith in what works. When my analysis of what I observe tells me that redistribution is needed I will work for redistribution. When a socialist government wants everyone to share the same misery I will work for individualism. As I see it the biggest danger to our existence is the superiority of faith in a contrived world order(s) over acknowledgment of observables.

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    2. One problem with this reasoning is that the conditions that hold in the US mostly do not hold for countries with more substantive food waste problems.
      A second problem with this reasoning is that the solutions applied in the developed world will not readily export to those parts of the world with higher food waste. Different problems.
      A third problem with this reasoning is that solutions applied in the US will not materially benefit the countries with more substantial food problems.

      One country that has been touted as a more comprehensive "lab" on food waste is the PRC. Conditions there apply to both the developing world and developed economies - and there is the added benefit that improvements made in the PRC will actually help address food waste and food security issues directly. Such is not the case with the US.

      Finally, I have not been tossing labels about (unlike some). Redistribution programs have a poor record on accomplishing their stated objectives. When an initiative is clearly founded on pseudoscience or suspect data, it's time to examine and consider the motives behind it.

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  4. Journalism 101: Facts don't matter. It's all in "framing" the issue.

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    1. University Of NBC (Nothing But Crap) Brian "W. Mitty" Williams School Of Fanciful Journalism - Rejected via E-mail
      "Applicant was not inventive enough with his work history, and failed to fabricate when and where possible in his work samples. Fiction is a prime ingredient in American journalism today."

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    2. The Washington Post had to issue a correction on this "story" by a brain-dead "journalist." Quel dommage!

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/06/26/a-double-rainbow-just-appeared-above-the-white-house/

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  5. How are you enjoying your redistributionism and liberal guilt complexes, CJ? :'D

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    1. Heh, funny - I don't, for the most part, have a liberal guilt complex.

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  6. The problem is really bad right now, and like most scientists have concluded, there are many reasons for the bee disaster. I tend to agree with the research that sublethal doses of neonics contribute to the weakening of the hive, which many folks in the Ag-world do not.

    The good news is all of the active R&D in this area. Many of the major Ag companies now have bee research divisions, and while I can't vouch for their effectiveness, one would hope that they are donig good work. I've read that someone is working on an RNAi treatment for the varroa mite, which would be phenomenal, and there is lots of conventional breeding of bees to try and come up with tougher variants. In fact, in ~50 years, the majority of pesticides (sprayed and GM'ed into the crops) could be RNAi-based and so specific for target insects/weeds/fungi that we could kill a specific type of caterpillar wtihout even touching a bee. Monsanto recently got the first RNAi-producing GM corn approved that is specific for corn rootworm.

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    1. The Aqueous LayerJune 23, 2015 at 11:31 AM

      ....which will only make the anti-GMO loonies, who believe that Monsanto is Satan, scream louder.

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    2. I know, right? Two acronyms in one crop? RNAi-GMO? Might as well be the beginning of the apocalypse.

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