Don’t Forget About the Bees


I’m becoming “that guy” in email and social media exchanges with friends: the guy who always brings up the ecological collapse (what a downer!) with the same emblematic but not-so-rhetorical question: “But what about the bees?”—which, to some friends with whom I communicate more regularly, has just become a one-word riposte: “bees”. Oh that’s an interesting piece about how economies are managed by tinkering with collective delusions, but… bees. Oh that’s a strange notion, that humans don’t have a carrying capacity, but… bees.

This time it wasn’t an email exchange, but a “debate” on Real Time with Bill Maher that got me thinking about our buzzy little friends; the panelists were discussing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and were focusing wholly on their safety, as in: “How do we make GMOs as safe as possible for human consumption moving forward?” Occasionally they veered into slightly different territory, asking how GMOs should be labeled, but for the most part the unstated but real question was (and is): “How can we increase food production on the dwindling arable land we’ve got so that (fill in the blank: from “so that people don’t go hungry” to “so that the US can remain competitive in the global marketplace blah blah blah”).

Then I came across this article in Scientific American, which—surprise!—totally justifies GMOs and downplays any legit questioning of them as “hysteria,” “herd mentality,” and a “pathological adherence to the Precautionary Principle.” Oh, and let’s not forget my favorite, “false moral outrage.” And what’s so great about GMOs? Well, the author assures, they’re better than dioxin. How insightful. Here’s a snippet:

In spite of this extensive consumption – surely constituting a global laboratory involving billions of daily, repeated, controlled experiments – there is no evidence of distinct harm from GMOs. That does not mean that no GMO can ever do any harm, just that the evidence until now is flimsy at best. From a chemical standpoint I have said before that I would rather trust foreign bits of DNA circulating around in my blood than things like dioxin and chlorofluorocarbons which can wreak demonstrated havoc.


Quickly, before addressing the unstated assumptions that come with the above quote and the on-going “debate” the article mentions, I’d like to point out that, via this piece by Kiera Butler at Mother Jones: “A full third of the world’s food is wasted, according to a new report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.” So if you’re worried about feeding people, maybe you should ask why corporations lock their dumpsters before asking why people who care about ecosystems have a problem with mega, mono-cropped agriculture—as well as, on some level, with agriculture itself. And, yes, lots of people have a problem with agriculture (attempting, poorly, to reconcile the alienation it causes is probably the origin of Abrahamic religion, for one example).

The first red flag for me is the line “there is no evidence of distinct harm from GMOs”—by which, giving the author the benefit of the doubt, he most assuredly means no harm to humans, medically, i.e. GMOs won’t make you drop dead or get cancer or anything like that. But this assessment of course misses the point: GMOs will cause harm to humans by exasperating and expediting the very destruction of the natural world, on which all life (even human, can you believe it?) depends. GMOs could have no direct health risks to humans whatsoever, but they still risk the health of the ecosystem by furthering mono-cropping, which depletes soil (cf. peak soil); by artificially increasing the population of humans, who love to pollute, consume, and, as I’ve already mentioned, throw away food; and by confusing, if not killing, bees—without whom we’d be, as my relatives love to say, even more up shit’s creek than we already are.

One little piece of the last article I linked to above:

Genetically modified seeds are produced and distributed by powerful biotech conglomerates. The latter manipulate government agricultural policy with a view to supporting their agenda of dominance in the agricultural industry. American conglomerates such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hybrid and others, have created seeds that reproduce only under certain conditions, often linked to the use of their own brands of fertilizer and/or insecticide.

The genetic modification of the plant leads to the concurrent genetic modification of the flower pollen. When the flower pollen becomes genetically modified or sterile, the bees will potentially go malnourished and die of illness due to the lack of nutrients and the interruption of the digestive capacity of what they feed on through the summer and over the winter hibernation process.

Fun times. And this nuance is just one little piece of the giant, complex puzzle that is an ecosystem—and one little piece that nobody at Scientific American seems to think about. To paraphrase a quote that I forget the author of: we don’t know enough to attempt to control this world. We don’t think about the infinite ramifications of our decisions, and by “our” I mean the oligarchy that decides things for everyone else, in order to make all risk public and all reward private.

When we don’t have enough food to support 1 billion people—let alone the projected 9 billion—will people then say that GMOs were a great solution to the world poverty and hunger problem?

Here’s a thought: instead of trying to figure out how to squeeze every last drop of energy out of a given piece of soil, until it’s exhausted and dies, bringing whole ecosystems down with it, why don’t we take steps to lessen the human population gradually and with volition, by educating and emancipating women, so that we don’t need Monsanto’ed seeds and we don’t need scientists in labs growing tumors in rats (they’re so different from us, Scientific American insists… woops, there’s that “false moral outrage” again) and, ultimately, we don’t need to irrevocably change what a flower is, just so GDP doesn’t go down by a percentage point on some computer screen somewhere.

Sorry to be that guy.




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