Thursday, 22 May 2008

Apis Mellifera and Maize

There was an old schoolboy riddle that asked "why don't polar bears eat penguins?" that played on the victim's ignorance of the geographical separation of the species. It came to mind yesterday when I was talking to a young man who had spent some short time in east Africa with one of the international volunteer organisations and therefore regarded himself as something of an expert on the required solutions to Africa's problems.

His argument got to the point of blaming the imposition of western agricultural systems as destroying the indigenous 'village' agricultural systems. "If we let them grow their traditional crops of maize and cassava in their own way ..." he said.

At that point I was obliged to point out that maize and cassava, and peanuts and sweet potato too for that matter, were not in the least native to Africa but were introduced there from the Americas by the Europeans. Only millet and sorghum would have been familiar to Africa prior to European intervention. His argument lost a great deal of its moral force at that point.

And so with the honey bee, Apis Mellifera. Generations of north American children who have grown up with Disney apparently believe the honey bee to be a native American species. But not so. Honey bees were confined to Europe and Africa before the colonisation of America, and were taken there to pollinate the crops introduced from Europe that were not pollinated by native American pollinators.

And therefore the title of this post is a little misleading; native maize in the Americas never required the honey bee to pollinate it. Many of the US' cash crops however do now rely on the honey bee; almonds, peaches, soya beans, blackberries, raspberries, cherries and pears being amongst them.

Around the world bees are dying from something called Colony Collapse Disorder, and no one knows why. Microwaves from mobile phones, GM crops, insecticides including imidacloprid and fipronil, climate change and other causes have been hypothesised but nothing is known yet. France has lost over 1,000 tonnes a year of honey production and has banned some pesticides, but to unproven effect. If the global collapse of honey bee populations continues, the US may lose valuable cash crops but Europe risks starvation.

I try not to be too Cassandra-like on this blog, but for over a year I have posted from time to time on the growing risks to our most basic well-being. The mass-migration of tens of millions of Africans driven by hunger, thirst and want northwards into Europe's soft underbelly, cheap air travel that provides a motorway for pandemics such as HN51 and multi drug resistant infections, Peak Oil and the prospect not of $200 a barrel (now almost a certainty) but $500, the effect of the increasing numbers of Extreme Climate Events on global food production, the dependence of the UK on imports for almost half the food we consume (we haven't been self sufficient in food since the Industrial Revolution), and the potential for a global economic depression that will make the events of 80 years ago seem mild in comparison.

On any balanced analysis of risk, the above overwhelmingly outweigh the insignificant risks of Jihadist terrorism. Yet the government and the opposition almost seem to have tacitly agreed to focus the public's mind on this rather minor threat.

Cameron's major speech this week included the following
... we have set out how we will achieve that mission – by ending the era of top-down state control and big government. We want to respond to what should be a new postbureaucratic age, by decentralising power, by giving people more opportunity and control over their lives, by making families stronger and society more responsible.

... Where services are individually consumed we will transfer power over those services to individual people, giving them a choice between competing providers. And where services are collectively consumed, we will transfer power over those services to the lowest practical tier of government, opening up provision to social enterprises, private companies and community organisations.
It's an encouraging signal at this stage. Nothing more. But if we're going to come though the coming crises as a nation, the economy and public administration must be ready to operate on what amounts to a war footing; Cameron's team should also be examining policy as it relates to a number of contingency plans to deal with national and international emergencies. Labour's Big State Centralism is ill-equipped to respond effectively to even a single threat event, let alone a multiple risk scenario.

When the chips are down, we will rely on our abilities of self-organisation at community and neighbourhood level; self-reliance will be the key, not waiting hopelessly for State aid. Local and intermediate institutions must be strengthened. The family and not the State must take precedence. We must learn to live without micro-management from Whitehall. If we do so, we stand half a chance of successfully facing whatever will be thrown at us in the coming years. But we must all be conscious of the threats. And as busy as bees.


Nick Drew said...

On the subject of NuLab centralism, what about Polyclinics, R?

We've taken a swipe here and I could imagine you agree

Nick Drew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

To be pedantic, Maize is a grass and therefore isn't pollinated by insects at all. Grass pollen is dispersed by the wind.