book review: silent spring by rachel carson

In my nearly 9 years of living in Pittsburgh, I have crossed the Rachel Carson Bridge many times – on foot and in my car. I’ll cross it this weekend during the Pittsburgh Half Marathon. I’ve always vaguely associated Rachel Carson’s name with Pittsburgh and with environmental stuff. There are outdoor programs and nature trails named after her, so it’s hard to live here and not know her name.

But it struck me recently in doing some reading about pesticides, that I had never read the book that really started it all when it comes to raising public awareness of the risks of pesticides. So I picked up Silent Spring in audio format and got acquainted with Rachel Carson.

(I should note that I would not recommend the audio version that I used. The narrator had a highly obnoxious voice that made it hard to concentrate. I think I would have enjoyed this book even more had I read it in hard copy.)

The book is credited with starting the environmental movement, which still continues to this day, more than 50 years after the publication of the book. Carson’s arguments are centered around the idea that the use of pesticides and insecticides is detrimental to the environment and all things that are a part of it. Actually, Carson calls the pesticides and insecticides that she details “biocides,” since they affect more than just their intended targets. 

Nature doesn’t operate in separate compartments – everything is interrelated. When one piece of the ecosystem is threatened, it threatens the balance and health of everything. This also holds true for water, which while in itself not a living thing is a vital part of all life on earth. As Carson points out, pollution of water somewhere is pollution of water everywhere, since we have a limited supply of fresh water on earth. Along those lines, poison at any part of the food chain travels up and down, affecting predator and prey. This simple summary doesn’t do justice to Carson’s extensive research or her talent with prose (which can be hard to come by in books about science).

Silent Spring is heavy on details, which while that makes it dry at times, is a good thing when it comes to the validity of her arguments. I’d imagine if I had a hard copy there would be footnotes a plenty. It’s also important to keep in mind that it was written in 1962, so some of the particular details of what she talks about aren’t accurate anymore – things like particular chemicals that are no longer in use in agriculture (most notably DDT). But sadly, even the parts that aren’t factually accurate anymore are still relevant, since chemicals that have since been banned have been replaced by others. 

While this book won’t be up your alley unless you’re really interested in pesticides and their impact on ecosystems, it’s worth knowing about this book in the broad sense and what it has done to impact where we are currently with these issues. For more on how Silent Spring jumpstarted the environmental movement, check out this piece in the New York Times from the 50th anniversary of the book’s release. 

Pittsburgh can be really proud that one of its natives was an environmental pioneer and a fascinating person in general. (I’d actually love to read more about her life and the years before Silent Spring, since she died just two years after its publication.)






bottomfeeder-eat-ethically

book review: bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe

After reading Four Fish and seeing The End of the Line, I’ve thought a lot about sustainability and seafood. While I enjoyed that book and the documentary, neither one of them comes close to the quality and persuasiveness of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.

Bottomfeeder was one of the most engaging non-fiction books I’ve read, with artful language and ingenious organization. Each chapter takes you somewhere in the world to illustrate how a problem in one area of the world is contributing to the larger problem of our seafood and ocean life literally vanishing. If you’re at all interested in sustainable seafood, this is the book to pick up. (I even found myself smirk laughing a few times, which to be honest, surprised me in a book about seafood.)

It is pretty much universally accepted by scientists that humans are driving seafood populations to extinction. Most predict that if current fishing practices continue, we will see the collapse of all of our edible sealife populations by 2050. Grescoe challenges the idea that has governed the use of the oceans for centuries – that ocean life is a bottomless resource and that humans are entitled to anything and everything they want from within its waters. This mentality is what’s driving us toward future generations not knowing that many species of seafood even existed. The oceans are commons, and too much freedom is an issue, as Grescoe quotes ecologist Garrett Hardin:

“Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” (p.10)

The book is divided by regions and their seafood of choice – from monkfish on the plates of elite high-end restaurants in New York City to shrimp in India, bluefin tuna in Japan and the cod of England’s fish and chip shops and more. Throughout the book, Grescoe illuminates the issues that threaten that seafood population, but not in a heavy-handed way that makes sweeping judgements. His research is meticulous, and he makes clear that often it’s not one single event or practice that contributes to a population’s decline or collapse, but a convergence of different things.

The book also covers the damage that overfishing has done on different levels. It’s not just the environment that is affected, but public health, the economy of traditional fishing communities and the ecosystem as a whole. Never before has eating lower on the food chain made more sense to me. And like encountering information about factory farming for the first time can make chicken nuggets hard to swallow, I’ll never look at imported shrimp or a piece of deep fried cod the same way again. There are just no compelling reasons besides convenience and cost to eat seafood that is taken from overfished, endangered populations. If we want future generations to enjoy eating from the sea, the time to start practicing restraint is now.

I often have complaints about books like this telling you a lot about the problem, but not offering practical solutions. Many times you’re convinced that you should care, but you aren’t given ways to do anything about it. This book is clearly the opposite. I finally feel equipped with enough tools to really implement better choices in my own consumption of seafood. An extensive appendix gives resources like websites for the most up to date information (this book is now 6 years old), general principles to follow when buying seafood, questions to ask your fishmonger or restaurant staff, descriptions of the best and worst fishing methods, and lists of seafood in three categories for eating (No, never. Depends, sometimes. Yes, always.). I want to buy a copy of this book just for the appendix alone. (I’m reluctant to have to return it to the library!)

Armed with this book as a resource and Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I feel confident about being able to make better seafood choices. We even stood in front of the seafood section at Costco this weekend, checking to see if any of the fresh offerings were ones we could buy without a guilty conscience. I want my choices to be healthy and sustainable – for both the ocean and human communities that fishing supports. 


movie review: vanishing of the bees

It’s amazing to think that something as tiny as a honeybee, which we routinely swat away from us, can carry the fate of billions of dollars of produce and the food supply of a nation on its shoulders. But honeybees are an essential part of our ecosystem and they are threatened by modern agriculture.

Vanishing of the Bees takes a look at the issue of colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD is the term used to describe when a colony of bees disappears, leaving behind no dead bodies, but only the queen and a few young bees. No “official” scientific cause has been found for this phenomenon, though this film investigates the different possibilities. 

I’ve written about bees briefly before, where I mentioned I have always been scared of bees. After watching this film, I’m more in awe of them than afraid. Did you know one single bee can hit up 100,000 flowers every day? That’s some productivity. Bees are responsible for pollinating $15 billion in crops in the U.S. alone. I think we owe them our attention.

The documentary talks about the religious, historical and cultural significance of the honeybee and how for centuries, bees have been thought of as an indicator of environmental quality – the healthier the hive, the healthier the environment. If bees can’t thrive, we can’t either. 

And right now? Bees are not thriving. CCD is affecting billions of bees and thousands upon thousands of hives with no exact known cause. 

Some who are proponents of organic/holistic beekeeping believe that it’s a byproduct of industrial/commercial production of bees. Practices like artificially inseminating queens to select for certain traits (thereby reducing genetic pool) and taking honey away from the hive and replacing it with sugar syrups are blamed for compromising the health of the colony, making it more susceptible to diseases and sickness. Makes sense – that’s happened for other animal species due to our industrial farming practices, so it’s not too far fetched to believe it could happen to bees.

When colonies in 37 states were affected by CCD in the mid 2000s, scientists started trying to understand the cause. Even theories about cell phone towers or Russian sabotage were floated. They found viruses and bacteria in many of the colonies that collapsed that can kill bees, but not in enough of the collapsed hives to determine that these diseases were the cause of the collapse. 

More and more beekeepers and scientists started to look to our modern farming practices as the culprit. Our vast fields of monocultures are incredibly susceptible to pests, which explains the vast use of pesticides in our crops (you know, the same chemicals that were developed to kill people in WWII, which are now sprayed on our vegetables). But pesticides were put in use in agriculture years ago – and CCD is a more recent phenomenon. So how are they connected? 

Older versions of pesticides were sprayed on crops, and bees could be removed from the fields during spraying time. The pesticides were on the surface, where insects would eat portions of the leaves and die from system failures – not necessarily in the flower/pollen portion of the plant that bees access. If you had an issue where bees were affected by these pesticides, you would know it from the dead bees present.

It was when systemic pesticides were introduced that bees started to be affected. Systemic pesticides are part of the plant’s seed and express themselves in the growth of the plant through its life, including pollen and nectar, which makes bees susceptible. When these pesticides were introduced, the only testing done on them was whether or not a dose was lethal. One flower isn’t enough to kill a bee, so they were deemed “safe” (or the risk was deemed “acceptable”), but no research was done on low level, sublethal doses – the kind that accumulate over time and are brought back to hives. These pesticides have been found in high levels in hives, but science has yet to prove that CCD is caused by them. 

I find it highly problematic in this country that minimal testing needs to be done to prove something is an acceptable environmental risk, but conclusive testing must be done to be able to take it off the market after the fact. Our government throws caution to the wind and relies on the industry to do its own testing instead of doing independent, third-party testing. (Sound familiar?) Even watching European countries such as France ban these systemic pesticides and see bee populations recover somehow doesn’t convince people in our country to take the same action. We’re too concerned about the welfare of our corporations and our greed. 

I don’t want to give away everything about this documentary, because I highly recommend you watch it for yourself and evaluate the science presented. Also, note that it’s not just the organic loving people that are raising the alarm about bees – industrial beekeepers and industrial farmers that rely on bees to pollinate their crops are speaking out too. If you eat ANY fresh food whatsoever, you need to care about the plight of the bees. What’s happening to our honeybees is a sign that our current system is unsustainable (one of many signs, actually.) 

The film also suggests some things you can do to take action for the bees – contacting your legislators is one way, but buying local, unadulterated U.S. honey, refraining from using chemicals on your lawn, eating organic produce that doesn’t use systemic pesticides, growing a garden with a habitat for bees with lots of flowering plants – those are all important ways you can make a difference.

I can’t recommend enough that you watch this film (I watched it on Netflix). Visit their website at www.vanishingbees.com and follow them on Twitter at @vanishingbees to keep up to date on the latest info about how you can help. For locals, check out Edible Allegheny‘s info on bees and CCD in western PA from their August/September issue.     



The necessity of bees

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’m afraid of bees. They don’t induce the level of terror in me that clowns do, but I am still the one that closes my eyes when a bee comes near me and pretends like a toddler that I am invisible to what I can’t see.

It’s for this reason that I have largely ignored headlines about the plight of bees. With so much to worry about in the way of factory farming and GMOs, how could I possibly add bees to my list of concerns? Turns out, bees are an important part of our food chain. Not just important, but essential.
Insects pollinate $18 billion to $27 billion worth of U.S. crops each year, which amounts to essentially a quarter of the American diet. The number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. has steadily declined from a high at the end of WWII, but starting around 2005, that decline has accelerated rapidly.
Colony collapse disorder has wiped out between 40 and 50 percent of the honeybee colonies that pollinate our fruits and vegetables. Scientists don’t know exactly why this is happening, but more and more researchers and beekeepers are attributing this disorder to the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides on crops. In particular, a class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids, derived from nicotine, is blamed (at least by European regulators).
Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides, which means the chemical is embedded in the seed, so that the plant contains the chemical that kills the pests that eat it. Because neonicotinoids don’t degrade as quickly as other pesticides, bees which keep coming back to the same plants (as they are wont to due) keep picking up more and more pesticide to bring back to their hives. This creates a build-up of the pesticide that in small doses might be harmless, but in large dosages are lethal.
Of course pesticide industry-sponsored research has concluded that the neonicotinoids are safe. The European Union, which is typically much more concerned with strict agricultural standards than the U.S., recently failed to pass a ban on neonicotinoids, though individual nations in the EU have passed their own bans.
Beekeepers and partner organizations in the U.S. just sued the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) asking them to immediately suspend use of two specific neonicotinoids. (Read more about the lawsuit here.) There are already not enough bees available to pollinate California’s almond crops (a very large export and staple in California’s economy).
Even if you don’t have an interest in the welfare of the bees as creatures that don’t deserve to feast on chemicals, there is an economic factor involved for all of us who eat American fruit and vegetables. Crop failure means smaller harvests and higher food prices. The costs that farmers have to pay for bees to pollinate is also increased when the supply of bees is low, which translates to higher food prices as well. 
Remember when you were in elementary school science classes, learning about ecosystems? How damage in one part of the ecosystem affects another? Protecting our ecosystem from those who would seek to exploit it (I’m looking at you, pesticide manufacturers) is the job of the EPA. We need to call upon them to recognize that the welfare of all of the parts of our ecosystem matter, and that includes bees.