Tag Archives: agriculture

Geographers and the ‘beepocalypse’

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Amidst the buzz of the Great British Bee Count, which is currently in full swing, a recent article in Geography Compass, by Watson and Stallins (2016), has looked at the process of knowledge production about honey bees, evaluating the various oppositional approaches to theorising honey bee decline. As animal geographers repeatedly reinforce, animals and plants are inextricably linked to human lives, the honey bee providing a good example of human-animal entanglement. By examining honey bee populations, it is also evident, as geographers have contended, that our attempts to define, categorise, and control the non-human are constantly defied by the contingent nature of the natural world. Human-insect and human-plant relationships, however, Watson and Stallins (2016) stress, have been neglected in geographical literature. It is, therefore, necessary to investigate the role of the ‘more-than-human’ in order to inform our use of anthropogenic spaces. In the example of the honey bee, it is vital that we understand the dynamics of bee populations in order to inform agricultural land-use, due to the implications for both agricultural sustainability and human health.

The western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is semi-domesticated, beekeeping being practised on a range of scales, from the hobby apiarist to industrial bee farmers. The honey bee, wild or otherwise, is an important constituent of our ecosystems, worldwide; it is the chief pollinator of more than a third of global produce, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts, and spices. In America, an estimated $12 billion of crop value is directly attributable to honey bees, generating $168 billion for the global economy (Watson and Stallins, 2016). Recent global decline in honey bee populations have variously been described as an ‘environmental crisis’, the ‘beepocalypse’, and a ‘planetary ethical catastrophe’ (Watson and Stallins, 2016). This has, therefore, caused concern in the media, as well as amongst the scientific community, agricultural businesses, and environmentalists.

In Britain alone, 20 species of bee have vanished entirely, and a further quarter are on the red list of threatened species (FoE, 2016a [online]). This concern about low bee numbers has led to the Great British Bee Count, an annual event which attempts to enlist the public in a national bee population survey. The campaign portrays the bee as our ‘friend’, as important to our ecosystems, and vital to the economy. The event, organised by Friends of the Earth, runs from May 19th to June 20th, and last year saw over 100,000 recorded sightings (FoE, 2016b [online]). However, surveys have indicated that only 33% of the British public can correctly identify the honey bee from a line-up of other bee species (FoE, 2016b [online])! It is, therefore, not surprising that environmentalists have got a bee in their bonnet about this subject.

Watson and Stallins’ (2016) article focuses on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – a little-understood cause of honey bee population decline – which has become sort of a ‘buzz word’ amongst scientists and agriculturalists. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), CCD is the formation of a ‘dead colony’, in which the queen is still alive but there are no adult bees to keep the colony going (USDA, 2016 [online]).  Whilst scientists have yet to agree on a cause of CCD, there are many suggested factors, involving both human and non-human actors. Amongst the anthropogenic causes are neonicotinoids (pesticides), climate change, pollution, changes in demand for certain luxury crops, and land-use changes associated with intensification of monocultures for industrial agriculture. The more-than-human is also partly to blame for bee population decline; pathogens, pests, viruses, and predation by other insects also pose threats to our black and yellow friends. The latter has, in fact, been in the news of late, the arrival of Asian hornets in Britain threatening bee populations (Boyle, 2016 [online]). A perhaps more discrete migrant than the people of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Devon were expecting, the hornets, originally from the Far East, have made their way over from France. They can eat up to 50 honey bees per day, and are also potentially deadly to humans, causing both DEFRA and the National Bee Unit to express a desire for the hornets to buzz off (Boyle, 2016 [online]).

Knowledge about honey bee population decline, Watson and Stallins (2016) state, is produced by scientists, the agricultural industry, environmentalists, and the media. They identify three ‘narratives’ or claims made about the causes of CCD, which work in opposition to each other. The first approach, the “Ecological Conservation Narrative”, stresses the causal primacy of the influence of industrial agriculture causing the proliferation of monocultures at the expense of vegetation diversity. The second approach, the “Reductionist Regulatory Narrative”, prioritises isolating the main cause – which it claims is the use of pesticides – over any historical analysis, or use of historical trends to predict future populations. The third and final narrative is the “Socioecological Complexity Narrative”, which recognises the complex combination of social and ecological causes. Watson and Stallins (2016), advocate a pluralistic approach that combines all three narratives and recognises the continuum of social and ecological causality of bee population decline. It is also, they argue, important to be sensitive to variations over space and time; it is impossible to have a rigid approach to such a fluid and complex ecological phenomenon.

It is hard to understand the sheer importance of honey bees to our ecosystems and economies, these tiny little creatures appearing so mundane in our day-to-day encounters with nature. They really are busy little bees, more so than they are often given credit for, and they are so closely intertwined with our lives that it would be a real cause for concern if the ‘beepocalypse’ was to become a reality.

Wbooks_iconatson, K. and Stallins, J.A. (2016). “Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder: A Pluralistic Reframing”, Geography Compass, 10(5):222-236.

60-world2Boyle, D. (2016). “Deadly Asian Hornets that devour bees and can kill humans arrive”, The Telegraph Online, 18th May, 2016. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/18/deadly-asian-hornets-that-devour-bees-and-can-kill-humans-arrive/

60-world2FoE, (2016a). “About the Great British Bee Count”, Friends of the Earth. Available at: https://www.foe.co.uk/page/great-british-bee-count-about

60-world2FoE, (2016b). “Get involved with the Great British Bee Count”, 19th May, 2016. Available at: http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2016/05/19/get-involved-great-british-bee-count/

60-world2USDA, (2016). “ARS Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder”, United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Available at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572

 

Drones for wildlife: the securitization of conservation?

By Helen Pallett

Drone_Flying_Eye

Image credit: Flying Eye (CC SA-BY)

We have come to know drones as one of the newest technologies of warfare and surveillance, a weapon central to how the war on terror is now being fought: remotely and increasingly through the use of computerised devices or robots. But another perhaps surprising use for drones has been developing in parallel, perhaps explaining why the World Wildlife Fund has been a major supporter of drone research since 2012.

On the same day last week the Guardian newspaper published two separate reports on drone usage. The first described how drones are going to be used in Kenya’s national parks in an effort to prevent poaching, whilst the second reported that in Germany drones will be used to protect young deer from being injured by combine harvesters.

These developments raise challenging questions about the development of new technologies. Do the intended purposes of a new technology matter when it is used for something different? Should we be interested in who the funders of technological research and innovation are? Can we assess and understand the uses of drones in wildlife conservation and, increasingly, research without understanding the use of drones as a technology of violence and surveillance? Is this the latest step in what some have referred to as ‘the securitzation of the environment’?

A recent themed section of The Geographical Journal, edited by Michael Mason and Mark Zeitoun, focuses on the issue of environmental security, both as a driver and consequence of increasing anxiety and apocalyptic accounts of the environment. In their introduction the editors argue that such fears about dangerous climate change or species extinctions work rhetorically to justify certain actions as urgent or emergency measures, from solar radiation management to crack downs on human behaviour and liberties.

Whilst few would doubt the seriousness of the threat from poaching to elephant and rhino populations in Kenya, by treating recent population depletion as an emergency scenario or a matter of security the Kenyan Wildlife Service and other conservationists may be serving to legitimate the use of a highly questionable conservation method. The use of drones for surveillance in Kenyan national parks represents a new method for policing ways of acting and being in a national park. The appropriate usage of national parks has long been a matter of controversy, not least because during the creation of many national parks, human populations had to be forcibly removed or regulated. Drones will potentially collect data not only concerning suspected poaching, but also other activities within the national park; all national park users can now be watched and surveilled. This may result in the management not only of poaching in the national parks, but also much more ambiguous activities such as attempts at settlement or the use of other resources.

Whilst it may be convenient to tell a simplistic story about ‘evil’ poachers and ‘good’ conservationists, such narratives can mask the more complex realities and the many negative implications the creation of national parks had for affected communities. Individual poachers may often be acting out of desperation, for example the lack of an alternative source of livelihood. Furthermore, poachers rarely act alone but rather are part of often transnational networks of capital, connecting them to infrastructures and markets for the sale of goods such as elephant and rhino horn.  So surveillance may be unlikely to act as a deterrent on its own.

The Kenyan drones project has been jointly funded by the US, Netherlands, France, Canada and Kenya, and also includes supplies of other military equipment such as firearms, bulletproof vests and night vision equipment. In the Kenyan national parks, drones are to be used in areas considered too risky for surveillance by manned aircraft, already a common practice. In the context of such efforts to radically reduce the risks faced by wildlife rangers in the field and the increasing panic about the loss of elephants and rhinos, how long will it be before it is acceptable to shoot suspected poachers on sight? Furthermore, once the infrastructures for drone use are in place it would be relatively straight-forward to substitute surveillance drones for armed drones, and this could be justified as a further means of protecting national park employees.

As we have seen with the military uses of drones, robots can make mistakes and claim innocent lives. Photos too can frequently be ambiguous and misleading, without other supporting evidence. Furthermore, these potential developments would further circumvent the justice procedures upheld by all the countries financially supporting the drones programme. In the context of albeit justified hysteria about the fast depletion of certain endangered populations, do we risk sanctioning an equally unpalatable solution? Claims of 96% reductions in poaching in some of the Kenyan drone pilots, alongside the circulation of horrifying images and statistics about the effects of poaching, also mean that other potential methods for conservation and poaching management may increasingly be ruled out and foreclosed.

books_icon Michael Mason & Mark Zeitoun 2013 Questioning environmental security, The Geography Journal, 179 (4): 294-297 (Open Access)

60-world2 Google cash buys drones to watch endangered species, BBC News, 6 December 2012

60-world2 Kenya to deploy drones in all national parks in a bid to tackle poaching, The Guardian, 25 April 2014

60-world2 Germany deploys drones to protect young deer from combine harvesters, The Guardian, 25 April 2014

Genetically Modified Boundaries

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Mahony

When prominent environmentalist Mark Lynas recently announced that he no longer opposes the genetic modification of agricultural crops, a decades-long debate about the risks, benefits, uncertainties and politics of biotechnology returned to our news stands. Lynas’ speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January made the news worldwide, as the former guerilla activist of the anti-GM movement announced his regret at the harm done to technological progress by the protests of his one-time colleagues.

Researchers in geography and science and technology studies (STS) are united by, amongst other things, their interest in boundaries. In a recently-published commentary in Area, Helen Pallett and I seek to explore this disciplinary confluence to try and make sense of the recent evolution of the GM debate. We were inspired to the task by last year’s protests around a field of experimental wheat at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. We drew attention to what we see as four interesting (and overlapping) boundary issues in the GM debate:

  • The distinctions made between reason or rationality and unreason or irrationality;
  • the inclusion or exclusion of certain voices from a debate often cast as being solely about science;
  • the boundaries between different spaces of public engagement which may have different norms and styles of debate; and
  • the material territories of the laboratories and fields of experimental crops, which were threatened with transgression last year by the Rothamsted protests.

We thought it was important to shift academic analysis of such controversies away from discussion of an abstract public debate at the national level to consider more deeply the material elements and multiple spaces of debate and contestation. What was also interesting to us is how these very different sorts of boundaries and spaces interact with and map onto each other; so the territory of Rothamsted’s wheat field came to symbolise, for a short time, the protected space some actors saw as necessary for science to function, out of reach of society’s interference.

We could equally have written a piece like this in response to the Lynas story – reflecting for example on the ways rhetorical boundaries were drawn between cool-headed scientific rationality and emotive, irrational protest. Lynas’ interview in the Guardian could itself be read as an insight into the constellation of powers which constitute contemporary modes of environmental governance.  Science, the state, private corporations, social movements, high-profile media figures – all of these actors make an appearance in Lynas’ story, as we hear how one individual has navigated the contested boundaries which separate them from one another. All four elements of our sketchy typology of boundary issues likewise make an appearance in the media coverage of Lynas’ conversion. Real-world events like these provide occasions for geographers to engage with other disciplines and academic traditions like STS and environmental sociology, which have their own analytic tools for making sense of boundaries, whether material, rhetorical, or both. In research on complex issues like GM, disciplinary boundaries too can be subject to some rethinking.

books_icon Martin Mahony and Helen Pallett, 2013, Boundaries, Territory and Public Controversy: The GM debate Re-materialisedArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12014

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 Martin Lynas: Truth, treachery and GM foodThe Guardian

globe42 Anti-GM activists urged not to trash wheat fieldThe Guardian

Forest decline in the eastern U.S.?

Covering much of central New York State is a mosaic of forest, pasture, and cornfields punctuated by lakes, small towns, rural residences, and sometimes wind turbines (© Peter Klepeis)

Covering much of central New York State is a mosaic of forest, pasture, and cornfields punctuated by lakes, small towns, rural residences, and sometimes wind turbines (© Peter Klepeis)

by Peter Klepeis

Most news coverage of forests tends to focus on deforestation. And for good reason. The Food and Agricultural Organization concludes that from 2000-2010 upwards of 13 million ha of forest per year were converted to other uses or lost to natural causes. Most of the clearing occurs in the tropics, and the resultant biodiversity loss, carbon dioxide emissions, and threats to local inhabitants are among the reasons to be concerned.

Global trends in forest cover hide regional differences, however. Many temperate and rich-country contexts have been experiencing forest recovery for decades. In the eastern United States, for example, cleared areas reached their peak in the mid-to-late 19th century, but this was followed by widespread natural forest regeneration. This forest expansion is celebrated for increasing carbon sequestration and improving water quality, reducing flood risk, decreasing soil erosion, expanding wildlife habitat, and providing opportunities for recreation and extractive industries. But it is not entirely positive. As described in Jim Sterba’s new book Nature Wars, extensive forest cover, a decline in hunters, and a lack of natural predators has led to a boom in wildlife – and deer in particular – with tick-bearing disease, auto accidents, and munched veggie gardens among the negative consequences.

Regardless of its positive or negative impacts on nature and society, what explains the shift from net forest loss to net gain? In the early 1990s the geographer Alexander Mather started to develop forest transition theory: economic development, the abandonment of lands marginal to agriculture, and the movement of rural inhabitants to urban areas tend to stimulate forest recovery. The theory captures fairly well the recovery trends seen in the U.S. and Europe over the past few hundred years. But the theory is not without its critics. Forest change is dynamic, non-linear, and the factors involved are linked to specific places and time periods. Not surprisingly, therefore, recent scholarship documents how – after decades of net gain – forest cover in the eastern U.S. started to decline in the 1970s.

In a new article in the journal Area, my co-authors and I use aerial photographs to evaluate changing forest cover between 1936 and 2008 for a town in central New York State. As expected, a decline in the farming sector and changing life and livelihood goals within farming families led to 25.8 % of the town reforesting. Two new trends emerge, however. First, there is a pronounced increase in the percentage of forest recovering on prime agricultural soils, which holds the potential to diversify habitat and increase biodiversity. Prior to 1994, reforestation on high quality soils was rare. Second, alternative land uses and invasive species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis), represent possible new forms of forest disturbance. Landowners are starting to develop wind power and natural gas, and practice silviculture. Also, there is steady growth in amenity-oriented land use and rural residential development. These new dynamics challenge theories of forest change, and raise questions about the prospects of sustainable land and forest use in the region.

The author: Peter Klepeis is Associate Professor of Geography at Colgate University, N.Y., U.S.

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Klepeis P, Scull P, LaLonde T, Svajlenka N and Gill N 2013 Changing forest recovery dynamics in the northeastern United States Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12016

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Mather A S and Needle C L 1998 The forest transition: a theoretical basis Area 30 117-24

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Grainger A 1995 The forest transition: an alternative approach Area 27 242-51

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Mather A S 1992 The forest transition Area 24 367-79

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Sterba J 2012 America gone wild Wall Street Journal 2 November

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Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2012 State of the world’s forests FAO, Rome

Remotely Piloted Vehicles in Ecological Research?

by Caitlin Douglas,

Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) are fixed or rotary winged aircraft operated without a pilot on board. There are three main types of RPVs: small-scale, tactical, and endurance RPVs which are able to operate at differing altitudes and ranges. Hardin and Hardin (2010) wrote in Geography Compass about the application of small-scale remotely piloted vehicles in environmental research.

Current applications include habitat/wildlife management and agricultural monitoring. Most uses involve taking aerial photography to monitor wildlife/vegetation populations and assess crop damage, but some applications involve biological sampling such as the collection of pollen and insects. Potential future uses include tasks that may be too dangerous for manned operations because the monitoring is taking place in hazardous areas. For example, a common problem with traditional aerial photography is cloud cover, and RPVs can be flown below the clouds.

Financial and technological hurdles prevent RPVs from being more widely adopted in ecological research; however, RPVs have been developed and successfully used at the Zoological Society of London.  A remotely operated ‘toy’ helicopter is flown through the ‘blows’ of whales to collect mucous and gas samples in order to study whale diseases. There appears to be a cautious but optimistic future for RPVs in ecological research.

Hardin, P. and Hardin, T. 2010. Small-Scale Remotely Piloted Vehicles in Environmental Research. Geography Compass, 4(9): 1297-1311.

The Institute of Zoology, 2008. Toy helicopter used to sample whale health. Zoological Society of London Website.

Foreign land investments or ‘land grabs’?

by Magali Bonne-Moreau

Thirty million hectares of farmland are lost every year as a result of environmental degradation, urbanisation, conversion to industrial use, and speculation on farmland, also known as ‘land grabbing,’ according to a recent report by Olivier de Schutter, the U.N. Expert on the Right to Food. ‘Land grabs’ describe the acquisition of large tracts of arable land in developing countries by cash-rich countries with inadequate land and water resources, such as the Gulf States, or with large populations and food security concerns, such as India or China, or for projects that seek to mitigate climate change, like the REDD scheme, as well as for biofuel production.

In the past, foreign acquisition of land in developing countries was often associated with private enterprises involved in cash-crop schemes. Following the 2007 global food price crisis, land deals have increased as a result of food security concerns; some of these are presented in an IFPRI policy brief (2009). Saudi Arabia is used as a case study by Lippman (2010) to discuss the issues around ‘investment in food supply’ by a country that is highly dependent on imported food. In contrast, a Guardian article (2010) presents the African perspective: as a result of these land investments, many farmers in countries with weak governance and a lack of formally recognised land tenure find themselves landless, further marginalised, and in a situation of food vulnerability. This is a strong paradox. In Ethiopia, more than 13 million people need food aid, but at least 3 million hectares of its most fertile land are provided to foreign investors for agriculture. In Madagascar, although the deal fell through in 2009, the South Korean company Daewoo offered to purchase nearly half of the country’s arable land to grow corn and palm oil.

The issues are complex. If done responsibly, foreign land investments could promote local employment, build agricultural capacity and increase crop yields. However, problems of dispossession, displacements, environmental degradation and local food vulnerability are widespread in many countries involved in these deals.

Read Access to Land and the Right to Food, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food presented at the 65th General Assembly of the United Nations, 21 October 2010.

Read Lippman’s article (2010): Saudi Arabia’s Quest for “Food Security”. Middle East Policy. 17(1), pp. 90-98

Read The Guardian’s article (7 March 2010): “How food and water are driving a 21st-century African land grab”

Look at the IFPRI table (2009): “Land Grabbing by Foreign Investors in Developing Countries: Risks and Opportunities”

For a larger overview of the topic, read Jarosz (2009) “Energy, Climate Change, Meat, and Markets: Mapping the Coordinates of the Current World Food Crisis” in Geography Compass 3(6), pp. 2065-2083

French farmers and the fields of Paris

By Jenny Lunn

The Champs-Élysées, the most famous boulevard in Paris, has been silenced for a few days – by young farmers! Overnight, lorries brought in tonnes of soil and turned a one-mile stretch of the normally busy thoroughfare into an enormous green space. The aim of the event, which has been organised by the French Young Farmers (Jeunes Agriculteurs) union, is to reconnect the general public with agriculture. Consumer demand for lower food prices is causing financial problems for farmers so they hope to showcase the quality of their produce and demonstrate the effort that goes into producing it.

Reconnecting farmers and consumers is also discussed by Guy Robinson in his article ‘Towards Sustainable Agriculture: Current Debates’ (Geography Compass, September 2009). Since the Second World War, the relationship between farmers and consumers has distanced due to mass production techniques, supermarket-based retailing and government regulation. Gradually people have forgotten where the food they eat comes from and how it reaches them. The system is becoming ever-more unsustainable as fruit, vegetables, meat and fish are flown across the world to meet year-round consumer demand for exotic produce.

Moving towards more sustainable forms of production and consumption will not be easy. Although demand for organic and locally-produced produce is growing, it is still a relatively niche market in overall terms. Changing consumer behaviour – particularly when it requires them to spend more money – is not a simple task. The cows and sheep on the Champs-Élysées over the holiday weekend is a starting point, at least, for reminding people of the quality and diversity of their nation’s food.

Read about the event in Paris on the BBC website

Read Guy Robinson’s article in Geography Compass