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Are Big Macs Killing Bees?

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There's a beautiful beach called "Crystal Cove" near my home, so close that my partner Tania and I, who consider it our personal sanctuary, walk on the shore several times a week.  (This stretch of coastline is one of the best things about Orange County, California, a place so conservative and corporate-friendly that voters here rejected a GMO labeling initiative by a two-to-one margin.)  In the past year, however, we've seen something strange on the beach along with the starfish, anemones and shorebirds: dying bees.  Sometimes there are none.  Other times they're present by the dozens, wriggling in circles in the wet sand at the water's edge like drunken, disoriented little aviators.  Eventually, they get tired and simply expire.  You can pick them up, barely alive, and move them inland to a safe place, but it makes no difference.  They're fatally lost, they can't find their  hive, and they'll be dead in a few hours.

"Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD) refers to the mysterious disappearance of millions of US honeybees over the past half-century -- and at an alarmingly accelerated rate since 2006.  I don't know for certain whether dying bees at the shore are casualties of CCD, and the academics I asked didn't know either.  But it sure seems likely, especially since CCD is such a generalized concept that almost anything might fit the category.  Which brings me to the main point of this article: the evidence shows that CCD is yet another unfortunate, costly result of Americans' extraordinarily high consumption of meat and dairy. 

In my book Meatonomics , I show that our nation's obsession with animal foods -- leading us to consume more meat per capita than any other country on the planet -- costs us more than $400 billion yearly in hidden, or externalized, costs.  The expenses related to these bee die-offs are also significant, which is why the agriculture industry and the US Department of Agriculture take CCD seriously and are devoting resources to addressing it.  One-third of the food we eat depends on honeybee pollination -- giving those pollination services an estimated value of $215 billion worldwide.  In 2008, there were just 2.4 million honeybee colonies in the United States, down from 5.9 million in 1945.  These massive colony losses have already raised honey costs and beehive rental costs, hurt some beekeepers' incomes, put others out of business, and threatened to disrupt the production of crops worth $15 billion.

Let's consider how bees are dying, then look at why meat and dairy are to blame.  One leading explanation for CCD is that the prevalent use of pesticides on crops is killing the little pollinators.  When exposed to toxins, bees become disoriented and die within twenty-four hours.  The bee deaths at the beach, of course, fit this pattern like a honeycomb fits a hive.

Another theory for the bees' disappearance is that with vast amounts of US cropland now dedicated to monocrops like corn and soybeans, foraging bees cannot find sufficient nutritional or seasonal variety to meet their needs.  Moreover, bees get important immune-boosting benefits from consuming a variety of pollen types, and when they consume only one type, these benefits are diminished. 

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A final hypothesis says that bees are dying because the pollen of GMO plants is altering the DNA of bees or of bacteria that live in bees' guts.  One researcher who studied this phenomenon found that genetic material transferred to bees from GMO corn may have "altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow parasites to gain entry."  

Of course, it could even be a combination of all three of these factors.  After all, bees evolved to consume healthy pollen from a variety of natural plants, not toxic pollen from pesticide-soaked, genetically modified, monocrops.  So the triple-whammy theory makes sense too.

It seems indisputable that CCD is a consequence of industrial agriculture, but what does this have to do with meat and dairy?  That's easy: most of the crops we grow in this country are fed to livestock.  Thus, the top three US crops are corn, soybeans, and hay. Farm animals eat 70 percent of the soybeans, 80 percent of the corn, and virtually all of the hay.  Moreover, 94% of US soy is GMO, as is 88% of US corn. 

Thus, the picture that emerges is this: most US cropland is dedicated to GMO monocrops being raised to feed livestock.  And the research shows that it is precisely these crops that are killing bees.  So it is fair to conclude that animal agriculture is largely responsible for the massive bee declines associated with CCD.

What can we do about it?  For starters, we can consume less meat and dairy and eat more organic fruits and vegetables.  This switch alone would go a long way toward helping restore the natural and variegated sources of healthy pollen that bees need.  I propose some other solutions to this and other problems of animal agriculture in my book -- so for more details, please check out Meatonomics.

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Lawyer, writer and advocate for sustainable consumption.

Author, Meatonomics


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