An Urban's Rural View

It's "Complicated, Enigmatic, Imperfectly Understood?" Oh, Write It Anyway

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
Connect with Urban:

Tamar Haspel, who writes a monthly column on food and agriculture for the Washington Post, says she's been accused of having "an unrealistically kumbaya vision of how to fix problems in the food supply." Which is a gracious way of saying, "Zealots attack me for being moderate and fair-minded."

Haspel made her kumbaya confession in a column headlined, "In a fight between environmentalists and farmers, the bees lose. And that stings (…)." Those who passionately believe neonicotinoids should be banned to save the honeybees won't like this piece. Neither will those who want to let pesticides totally off the hook.

A beekeeper herself, Haspel interviews a beekeeper, an entomologist, a corn-and-beans farmer, USDA's top bee researcher and spokesmen for two environmental groups, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. Ironically, it's the beekeeper who has the fewest problems with pesticides. His top three concerns? "Varroa, varroa and varroa."

The entomologist and the USDA researcher also put the brunt of the blame on varroa mites. But both think pesticides are also part of the problem. If they are, what is to be done?

The farmer says he uses equipment to prevent drift from his plantings of pesticide-coated seeds. He defends the seeds as "a cheap insurance policy." He criticizes Canada's Ontario province, where he farms, for enacting restrictions requiring pests to be found in the field before neonics can be used. The pest your tests miss, he says, can cost you a lot of money. He also points out that hobbling neonics simply forces farmers to use other pesticides -- an important consideration if Haspel's entomologist is right in saying it's not just neonics that kill bees.

Greenpeace's research director Mark Floegal would ban neonics unless further testing showed "no effect" from them. He concedes neonics are only part of the problem for bees but says it's the only part Greenpeace can change. "If there were some way that our supporters could take some action that could lead to the demise of the varroa mite, we would," he says.

Jason Clay, a vice president of the World Wildlife Federation, advocates bringing everyone to the table, identifying common ground and asking, "What has to be done to reduce impact? Who's going to pay for it? What kind of business model would allow this to happen?"

Haspel leaves no doubt this is the approach she favors. She says she's confident "beekeepers, farmers, environmentalists and regulators can find enough common ground to hammer out pesticide guidelines that minimize risk to pollinators. Is there a way to restrict pesticides more carefully on crops (such as fruits and vegetables) that bees pollinate but allow more latitude on crops (such as corn and soy) that they don't?"

Agree with Haspel or not, it's clear she is constructively looking for solutions that preserve bees without stinging farmers. She regrets the media's fondness for oversimplified, categorical narratives. "Unfortunately," she says, "a story headlined 'Bee Deaths Complicated, Enigmatic, Imperfectly Understood' doesn't exactly scream, 'Read me!'"

Kudos to Haspel for demonstrating, here and in previous Post columns on other issues (…), that it's possible to make a complicated, enigmatic and imperfectly understood story readable, thought-provoking and persuasive. Where much of the media paints ag and food issues either black or white, Haspel daubs shades of gray. It's too bad more pundits don't share her color sense.

Urban Lehner



To comment, please Log In or Join our Community .