Relationships and systems

1 07 2014




From Jewel  Renee Illustration;

From Jewel Renee Illustration;

From Alaska to Southern California, sea stars (or as I call them,  starfish.    But  scientists like to point out they’re not fish, ergo: “sea stars”) are dying by the millions.  Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist at Cornell University, calls it the largest documented marine epidemic in human history.   The disease deflates sea stars, causing them to become weak, lose limbs  and develop lesions that eat through their entire bodies – or simply disintegrate into bacterial goop within days.   

Two affected species – sunflower and ochre stars – are “keystone species” in their respective habitats. That is, they are species that have disproportionately large impacts on their ecosystems, and they fill a vital niche. The term was coined 45 years ago by zoology professor Robert Paine, of the University of Washington, specifically to describe the importance of the ochre star in the Pacific Northwest.  They are a top predator, eating mussels, barnacles and sea snails.

“This is the species that defined the term, which is a central concept in ecological theory,” explained Drew Harvell.   “We do expect the impact to be dramatic. And to take away not just one, but both of these keystone species in adjoining ecosystems? It’s going to have a big effect.”[1]

Nobody knows why the sea stars are dying.  Theories have run from waterborne pathogens or other disease agents, manmade chemicals, ocean acidification, wastewater discharge or warming oceans.  There is even a contingent that thinks the Fukushima nuclear meltdown is the cause.  The newest theory is that they’re being infected with a disease that can more easily grow in the Pacific Ocean thanks to warming waters, which provide a better place for the disease organisms to multiply.  According to the scientists, the warmer waters also compromises the immune systems of the sea stars, allowing them to be more susceptible to the disease.

I’m sure you know where I’m going with this:  like Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) of honeybees, the sea star wasting syndrome is beyond the range of what we expect in a healthy ecosystem.  Most scientists have concurred that the CCD was caused by a variety of environmental stresses (malnutrition, pathogens, mites, pesticides, radiation from cell phones and other man made devices, as well as genetically modified crops with pest control characteristics) which increased stress and reduced the immune systems of the honeybees.

And though bees and sea stars are both rather small and seem insignificant, they are both essential components of our ecosystem.  Without bees, for example, there would be significantly less pollination, which would result in limited plant growth and lower food supplies. According to Dr. Albert Einstein, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination…no more men”.[2]    It’s a bit early to assess the impact of the loss of sea stars, but according to Carol Blanchette, a research biologist at University of California Santa Barbara,  “losing a predator like that is bound to have some pretty serious ecological consequences and we really don’t know exactly how the system is going to look but we’re quite certain that it’s going to have an impact.”[3]

I read a book many years ago about time travelers who went to the distant past.  One of them stepped on an insect.  When they returned to their own time, everything had changed.  Ecologists tell us that everything is connected to everything else – ecosystems are complex and interconnected.  “The system,” Barry Commoner writes, “is stabilized by its dynamic self-compensating properties; these same properties, if overstressed, can lead to a dramatic collapse.” Further, “the ecological system is an amplifier, so that a small perturbation in one place may have large, distant, long-delayed effects elsewhere.”[4]

So how does the textile industry figure into this equation?  Answer:  the textile industry pollutes our water.  In fact, some sources put it as the leading industrial polluter of water on the planet.  It takes about 505 gallons of water to produce one pair of Levi’s 501 jeans.[5]  Imagine how much water is used every day by textile mills worldwide.   The actual amount of water used is not really the point, in my opinion.  What matters is that the water used by the textile industry is not “cleaned up” before they return it to our ecosystem.  The textile industry’s chemically infused effluent – filled with PBDEs,  phthalates, organochlorines, lead and a host of other chemicals that have been proven to cause a variety of human health issues – is routinely dumped into our waterways untreated.  And we are all downstream.

Maude Barlow, in her book, Blue Covenant [6] argues that water is not a commercial good but rather a human right and a public trust.   She shares these startling facts about water during her presentations:

  • Every 8 seconds a child dies from drinking dirty water.
  • 50% of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people who have contracted waterborne diseases.
  • The World Health Organization says contaminated water is the cause of 80% of all sickness and disease worldwide.
  • 9 countries control 60% of the world’s available freshwater.[7]
  • In China, 80% of all major rivers are so polluted they don’t support aquatic life at all.

This year’s drought in the US pointed to a new water related issue, the generation of energy.  Power plants are completely dependent on water for cooling and make up about half the water usage in the US.  If water levels in the rivers that cool them drop too low, the power plant – already overworked from the heat – won’t be able to draw in enough water. In addition, if the cooling water discharged from a plant raises already-hot river temperatures above certain thresholds, environmental regulations require the plant to shut down.[8]

The textile mills which are polluting our groundwater are using their corporate power to control water they use – and who gives them that right?  If we agree that they have the right to use the water, shouldn’t they also have an obligation to return the water in its unpolluted state?  Ms. Barlow and others around the world are calling for a UN covenant to set the framework for water as a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity, and the legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.

Please ask whether the fabric you buy has been produced in a mill which treats its wastewater.   The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) assures consumers that the mill which produced the fabric has treated its wastewater, but so far it is the only third party certification with that requirement as a standard.  Oeko Tex 1000 has also included that in its requirements, however I have never seen an Oeko Tex 1000 certification – most fabrics are simply Oeko Tex certified.  Also look into the Greenpeace Detox challenge, which is working to “expose the direct links between global clothing brands, their suppliers, and toxic water pollution around the world.”  Click here for more information.


[1] Gashler, Krisy, “Sea star wasting devastates Pacific Coast species”, Cornell Chronicle, Feb 17, 2014



[4] Commoner, Barry; “The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology”, Random House, October 1971

[5] Alter, Alexandra, “Yet Another Footprint to Worry About: Water”, The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2009.

[6] Barlow, Maude; “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water”, The New Press, 2008.

[7] WBCSD, Facts and Trends: Water (version 2), 2009.

[8] Reardon, Sara, “Water shortages hit US power supply”, New Scientist, 20 August 2012.



Bees and the web of life

23 05 2013

beesI’m happily planning what will be my new organic kitchen garden, and I keep thinking about agriculture and how it relates to Fritjof Capra’s statement that we are all part of a vast interconnected universe – one that is constantly in flux. And I also keep returning to the subject of how agriculture, as practiced in the “developed” world, impacts us.

Across the United States and around the world, honey bee populations are mysteriously vanishing. Honey bee colony losses are not uncommon, however, the sort of disappearance I’m talking about is unprecedented: This honey bee colony loss (called colony-collapse disorder, CCD) is due to uncharacteristic bee behavior: bees are failing to return to the hive. And we don’t know why.

Given how important honeybees are to the food that we eat — bees help pollinate crops that are worth more than $200 billion a year — the fact that they are dying in large numbers, and we can’t say why, is very, very worrying. And it’s not just honey bees that are dying: according to a study written by a team of scientists including entomologist Sydney Cameron of the University of Illinois, the relative abundance of four species of bumble bees over the past few decades has dropped by more than 90%—and those disappearing species are also suffering from low genetic diversity, which makes them that much more susceptible to disease or environmental pressures.

CCD was first reported in 2006, when commercial beekeepers began noticing that their adult worker honeybees would suddenly flee the hive, ending up dead somewhere else. This led to the rapid loss of the colony. During normal years, commercial beekeepers expect to lose 10% to 15% of their colony, but over the past five years, mortality rates for commercial operations in the U.S. have ranged from 28% to 33%. This could be disastrous for our food supply: according to a study released by the United States Department of Agriculture in May, 2013, “the consequences for the agricultural economy — and even for our ability to feed ourselves — could be dire.”(1)

How is this of such concern? In California, the almond crop (as one example) is so large and intensively grown these days that it has greatly surpassed the region’s inherent ability to supply pollinators. Decades ago, when there were fewer almonds, farmers could rely on pollination just from the beekeepers who lived in the Central Valley. Now, they have to import migrant apian labor.

And now, bees are big business: Scientific AG, a firm based in Bakersfield, California, helps broker pollination deals between local almond growers and apiarists from across America. Joe Traynor, the pollination broker who founded Scientific AG, says that in the 1960s there were 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of groves. Today, groves cover 700,000 acres and the industry claims it supplies 80% of the world’s almonds. In order to meet this pollination demand, more than a third of America’s beehives must be moved to California for the season. Such changes to the industry have been reflected in the prices for bee hives. In 1995 growers could rent a hive for $35. Today, says Mr Traynor, a strong colony would cost $150-200. Beekeepers truck their hives cross country to pollinate almond groves in California, field crops and forages in the Midwest, apples and blueberries in the Northeast and citrus in Florida.

But now the bees are dying and nobody has pinned down the precise cause for CCD.

A lot of things can kill a hive, but nothing has devastated beekeeping in America in the last half century more than the accidental introduction of Varroa destructor in the mid-1980s. A tiny parasitic mite, varroa reproduces fast, and mite populations can and do overwhelm colonies and kill them outright. Varroa is credited with wiping out the wild bee population in North America. Breeding a varroa-resistant bee is the holy grail of American beekeepers. And often varroa mites are cited as a cause of CCD, but varroa mites were present in North America 20 years before CCD.

Other types of fungus (such as Nosema ceranae, a parasitic fungus from Asia which impacts a bee’s ability to process food) have been mentioned. But there is almost certainly a further factor causing stress on the bees—a poor diet.

It is increasingly being recognized that managed bees need food supplements. In some places, a decline in the area of pasture land on which they can forage, the loss of weedy borders and the growth of crop monocultures mean it is hard for bees to find a wide enough range of pollen sources to obtain all their essential amino acids. In extreme cases they may not even find enough basic protein. Writing in Bee Culture, February 2009, Mr Traynor observes that places where crops with low-protein pollens are grown (such as blueberries and sunflowers) are also places where CCD has appeared.

The suggestion is that poor nutrition has weakened the bees’ immune systems, making them more vulnerable to viruses and other parasites. Feeding bees supplements, rather than relying on their ability to forage in the wild, costs time and money. Many beekeepers therefore try to avoid it. Anecdote suggests, however, that those who do fork out find their colonies are far more resistant to CCD.

New research suggests yet another potential contributor to CCD. The problem? We’ve been stealing the bees’ honey, which aids the bee’s “immune systems”—detoxification enzymes used to rid the body of foreign chemicals, like pesticides – and instead feeding them high fructose corn syrup. Commercial beekeepers feed bees high fructose corn syrup instead of honey for the same reason that commercial food manufacturers feed it to us: it’s cheaper.(2)

And of course, there are pesticides. Systemic pesticides like imidacloprid and clothianidin, so-called “neonics,” are persistent in soils for as long as two years, are water-soluble so they can travel far from their original application, and they’re taken up by plants’ roots and circulated throughout, so leaves, nectar, pollen, fruit – indeed, all of the plant is contaminated. The European Union recently instituted a two year ban on neonics. Research at Washington State University has found that pesticides embedded in old honeycombs is a major contributors to CCD.(3) They found traces of insecticides, herbicides, miticides and fungicides in honeycombs and bees raised in those hives had “significantly reduced longevity”.

Even more far-fetched concerns for CCD include cellphones and GMO crops.

But here’s the thing: Australia is one of the few nations in the world to have remained free of varroa mite (so far). And Australia – which has cellphones and towers, migratory and commercial beekeeping, neonic pesticides in agriculture, high fructose corn syrup for supplemental feeding, and environmental factors like drought and urbanization and all the rest – has had zero incidents of colony collapse disorder.
So, going back to Fritjof Capra and his insistence that the “web of life” is made up of a series of interconnected things, could it not be because of all of the above? Bees are stressed by loss of habitat, infection from fungus and mites, pesticides and poor nutrition – perhaps they’re just reaching the tipping point?