May 17, 2015

Birds and Bees



Wendell Berry was chosen to deliver the Jefferson Lecture by the National Endowment for the Humanities a couple of years ago. He gave one of the most moving and profound speeches I have ever heard anyone give, entitled “It All Turns on Affection”. (You can find it on the web.)

In it, Berry says:

“. . . if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease.”

His words rattle around in my head almost constantly, but come to the surface of my consciousness every time a new crisis in agribusiness rears its head. In recent years, there are several new crises that won’t seem to go away, and the birds and the bees are the latest poster animals for our failing to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land.

The most recent news reports claim that more than 30 million chickens, mostly laying hens among 16 states in the Midwestern US, are infected with avian flu and will have to be destroyed.  The virus, not infectious to humans or other mammals, is reportedly spread by wild, migrating waterfowl such as ducks and geese. Apparently poultry in the Midwestern states are more likely to be infected because the migrating birds spend more time on farmlands up there than they do in the South; also, the fact that so many factory-sized laying hen barns are up there.

For example, according to Food and Water Watch, the average Iowa “egg producer” is home to about 600,000 hens. In Nebraska, the average egg farm has about 1 million hens. With the exception of two or three states where it’s illegal, laying hens live in wire cages, usually suspended off the ground, whose size is dictated by (minimum) floor space standards more or less overseen by the federal government. So most of the 270 million laying hens in the US get about 70 – 90 square inches (yes, inches) of “floor” space. Said floor being a wire mesh cage bottom.

By the way, 90 square inches is much less than a square foot.

These luxurious, indoor cages are commonly known as “battery cages”. (As in assault and battery?) Battery cages have been illegal in Europe for years.

Laying hens in such large “production systems”, as they are unaffectionately known, also have their beaks clipped off; this is because they are in such tight quarters and in such large numbers that the egg “farmers” want to eliminate hens exercising their natural “pecking order”. (For real – as in most natural systems,  chickens live in hierarchies and dominant hens peck other hens to assert their position. Of course, egg farmers can’t have any such thing going on in their most unnatural bowers of 1 million birds under one roof.

Here I must stop and re-examine Berry’s poignant verse from above: “. . if we offend gravely enough as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately with our land responsibly . .”

Is it a grave enough failure to cage hens, permanently indoors, with no beaks, in wire prisons allowing less than a square foot of space for their entire lives? Is this in any remote sense a way to deal affectionately with the land, or the things in and on the land?

Are we failing badly to consider this sort of “egg production” to be, truthfully, taking care of the land? Is concentrating 1 million birds in a relatively small facility a truly neighborly act?

I don’t think so. Au contraire, it seems that the recent outbreak of bird flu in US poultry is an indicator that truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The practice of concentrating so many domestic birds in one place is not sustainable, truly. And the truth is that when a disease strikes that’s not controlled by the antibiotics fed to these chickens, the result will always be ugly.


Similarly, the nation’s honeybee is another poster bug for Berry’s prediction of the consequences of grave offenses against the land. Several NGOs have reported over the past 5 years that these important parts of our food system have been declining in numbers at an unprecedented rate. Most recently even our US Dept of Agriculture acknowledges that honeybee numbers appear to have declined by more than 40% in recent years. I have written earlier in this blog about Winchester Farm’s first-hand experience with this.

Concerning the bees, there are two offenses inherent in our food system, as I see it.

The first is eerily akin to the “egg production facilities” mentioned above. That is, our farming is now dominated by large operations that grow food in monocultures – whether it be corn, cotton, almonds or apricots. In order to achieve efficiency in mechanical farming (that is, reduce labor), growers must focus on one crop per giant field. In these fields, herbicides get rid of the weeds that formerly provided cover and blooms for honeybees and other beneficial insects. And pesticides get rid of insect pests as well as bugs that aren’t pests. Like honeybees.

According to the LA Times newspaper, one large almond grower has 63,000 acres of trees and must import 3 billion bees to pollinate his trees. Some years ago, I watched a documentary wherein a single beekeeper had trucked approximately 1 billion (with a “B”) bees to California almond groves. Within 2 weeks, almost all his bees were dead. Fingers pointed to pesticides as the likely culprit in the massive bee die-off.

Research has shown pretty convincingly that the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids has played a role in the decline of bees. In California’s almond and fruit orchards, “neonics” are widely used. These chemicals affect the central nervous system of insects and cause their death, or at least paralysis. The same is true for Florida’s citrus groves. I heard one citrus grower interviewed last week. He allowed as how if citrus growers didn’t use neonicotinoids, then Americans would have no citrus.

I wonder how we had citrus before the advent of these chemicals?

As in egg farming, beekeeping has ceased to be an art, but rather has become a consolidated large-scale scientific enterprise. There are about 212,000 beekeepers in the United States, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes 200,000 of them as hobbyists, and another 10,000 as “sideliners,” or part-time beekeepers. Commercial producers, those owning 300 or more colonies, number about 2,000 and produce about 60 percent of the 300 million pounds of honey extracted annually in the United States. There are an estimated 10 million colonies of domesticated bees in the US. Or at least there were before 40% were lost in the last few years.

All this does not account for the fact that bees are a part of nature; up until the industrial revolution, man and bee cohabitated in a mutually beneficial manner. But nature puts a limit on how much she can be contained, just as she puts a limit on to what extent she can be excluded from our food system. It appears that we cannot restrict the natural cycle of bees in favor of penning almost unimaginable numbers them up in order to sustain our lust for abundant, cheap food from unhealthy monocultures. Likewise, we cannot continue to farm fencerow-to-fencerow in fields sprayed with chemicals that preclude any semblance of biodiversity and expect wild bees to prosper.

These abuses in our monocultures and of our pollinators are just more examples of Berry’s grave offenses against which truth is already retaliating. Understanding that we all must have affection for the natural world, and respect its limits, is the first step in shifting the paradigm









As usual, Berry is right.