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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Oil Spill Not This Year's Only Environmental Disaster

Bill Berry

The gulf oil disaster is plenty bad, but it wasn't the only frightening environmental news in the past few days.

The oil spill, of course, has all the right triggers for the media swarm - dead sea creatures, beaches threatened, the fishing industry devastated, politicians running for cover. It's a story with beaucoup opportunities for dramatic visuals.

But while politicians were scrambling to spin the oil spill, a story in England's Guardian turned the attention to a potentially bigger problem.  "Fears for crops as shock figures from America show scale of bee catastrophe," the headline proclaimed. A subhead added ominously, "The world may be on the brink of biological disaster after news that a third of U.S. bee colonies did not survive the winter."

This is not a new story, but in the past four years, it has unfolded in an alarming manner. More than a third of America's bee colonies failed to survive winter this year. That's the fourth year in a row of major declines. It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends on honeybee pollination. The latest story leads to speculation that honeybees are in terminal decline.

Dubbed "colony collapse disorder," the phenomenon has wiped out more than 3 million colonies in the U.S., and billions of honeybees worldwide have died.

Scientists still don't know what is causing the catastrophic fall. A global review of honeybee deaths by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) reported last week that there was no one single cause, but pointed the finger at the "irresponsible use" of pesticides, which may damage bee health and make them more susceptible to diseases. Bernard Vallat, the OIE's director-general, warned: "Bees contribute to global food security, and their extinction would represent a terrible biological disaster."

Then comes more bad news: the report in The New York Times and other publications about the emergence of Roundup-resistant weeds.

Pioneered by chemical giant Monsanto, Roundup-resistant seeds for crops such as soybeans have pretty much become standard in American agriculture. With Roundup, the crops survive while the weeds die. At least that was the plan. And when Roundup was used, there was generally less pesticide use, less soil disturbance and better soil health.

But, as the Times noted, just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers' near-ubiquitous use of the weed killer Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds. Among them: pigweed, the bane of many a Wisconsin farmer and gardener.

Critics warned of this. Monsanto said it wouldn't happen. Now that it has, farmers may find themselves returning to more intensive, costly and environmentally damaging farming methods. In some parts of the East, Midwest and South, farmers are already turning to older methods, such as spraying fields with more toxic herbicides, pulling weeds by hand and plowing regularly. Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

How serious is it? "It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen," said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, in the New York Times story.

So there you have it: the Gulf of Mexico despoiled by oil, a bee disaster and the emergence of superweeds in American farm fields. What will next week bring?

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Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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