Jay Feldman is a cofounder of EarthShare member charity Beyond Pesticides and has served as its director since 1981. In this two-part series, Feldman talks about the impacts that pesticides have on people and pollinators and the causes of the mysterious bee colony collapse disorder.
EarthShare: What defining moment in your past spurred you to work on the issues of pesticides?
Jay Feldman: As part of my work in the late 1970s with Rural America, I traveled the country to document the pesticide problem and organize public forums for farmworkers and farmers to share their poisoning and contamination problems with state and federal regulators. We held forums in Florida, Texas, and California, and as we moved across the country, the size of the forums grew, with small farmers and farmworkers standing together to explain their poisoning and contamination experiences.
The workers described the headaches, dizziness, nausea, miscarriages, cancer, rashes, lack of protective equipment and training, contaminated drinking water and pesticide drift into their housing areas. Children were exposed in the fields while their parents worked all day, and there was a lack of standards about when it was safe to be in the fields after pesticide applications. These stories created for me a deep bond with those who were willing to share them. They allowed me into their homes in labor camps, and trusted that I was genuinely concerned for their health and welfare.
After those early years, my attention broadened beyond agriculture to pesticide use in places like parks, home lawns, schools, forests and buildings. Today, as we advance organic as the solution to pesticide pollution, we see the tremendous opportunity to protect air, land, and water, while adopting land management practices that reduce fossil fuel use, petroleum-based fertilizers, and sequester carbon to reduce the pressures on climate change.
How has pesticide use changed since you started at Beyond Pesticides?
The dramatic growth of the organic sector to over $30 billion, both in food production and lawn and landscape care, is directly attributable to changes in the market brought on by the public. Despite the best efforts of those who promote toxic products, people are getting it. While this is positive, it also means that the consumers have to remain vigilant to ensure that the underlying alternative or organic standards are true to the public health and environmental values that spawned this sector.
Why are bees so important?
Approximately 90 percent of all flowering plants require pollinators to survive. Cucumbers, almonds, carrots, melons, apricots, cherries, pears, apples, prunes, plums, cantaloupe, onions, avocados, kiwi, blueberries, cranberries and more depend on honeybee pollination. This means that roughly one in every three bites of food we eat is dependent on honey bees for pollination.
Honey bees are the most economically valuable pollinator worldwide, and many high-value crops such as almonds and broccoli are entirely reliant upon pollination services by commercial beekeepers. The value of crops pollinated by bees in the U.S. alone was estimated at $14.6 billion in 2000 – that figure has
Dharam Abrol has called pollinators “a bellweather for environmental stress”. Honey bees, especially, are often considered an indicator species that reflect the greater health of the overall ecosystem they inhabit. If bee colonies are suffering, it is usually a sign that the ecosystem is in danger.
How have bee populations fared since you started at Beyond Pesticides? Has the situation gotten better or worse?
Beekeepers often suffer minor losses in their hives over the winter as activity in the colony diminishes. A common average for normal commercial hives is around a 10% loss in bee population at the end of the winter. In 2006, many beekeepers around the country and around the world began to see a startlingly sharp rise in their overwinter losses. The average loss over the 2006/2007 winter in the United States was 32%. Losses have remained abnormally high since that time, with beekeepers now regularly losing about a third of their bees every winter.
Why are pesticides so pervasive despite their harmful effects?
We have grown up believing that pesticides contribute to agricultural productivity and quality of life. However, the facts show that organic production and practices are competitive with chemical-intensive and actually save money for society when you calculate all the secondary costs associated with pesticide pollution. For more information see our article, The Real Story on the Affordability of Organic Food.
As a society, we have not been thoughtful about the implications of tinkering with ecological balance, whether in an agricultural field or a forest. As we delve deeper into the subject, we find that we have a tremendous responsibility through our daily lives and decisions that we make in food purchasing, management practices, and product choice to protect the biodiversity of the planet down to the diversity of microorganisms in the soil that support organic systems in an agricultural field or a home lawn. For more information on this see Preserving Biodiversity as if Life Depends on It.
Want to learn more? Read Part 2 of our Q& A with Jay.