One day a countryman going to the nest of his Goose found there an egg all yellow and glittering. When he took it up it was as heavy as lead and he was going to throw it away, because he thought a trick had been played upon him. But he took it home on second thoughts, and soon found to his delight that it was an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and he soon became rich by selling his eggs. As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find nothing. -Aesop, “The Goose with the Golden Egg”
The Industrial Revolution spawned a new approach to traditional farming methods, called Intensive Agriculture. The thought leaders of Intensive Farming introduced ideas that revolutionized farming and spiked crop yields. By replacing the ancient, less efficient three-course system of crop rotation with innovations like monocultures, mechanization, herbicides, pesticides and hybrid seeds, farmers experienced dramatic (sevenfold or more) increases in crop yields.
For example, farmers today grow seven times as much corn as they did in the 1930s, on 20% less land.[ref]http://quickstats.nass.usda.gov, accessed December 5, 2013.[/ref] After the introduction of hybrid seeds and the widespread use of nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides, the yield per acre over the same time skyrocketed from 20 bushels in 1931 to 147 in 2011.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] These dramatic productivity improvements transformed both agriculture (including fruits, tree nuts and vegetables) and animal husbandry.
I’m starting to wonder, however, if we’re not at risk of fulfilling the prophesy of the countryman who seized upon the goose with the golden eggs. While there are many signs which place us on this path, one of the more dramatic that I’ve seen lately is the devastation of the honey bee population in the apple and pear growing regions of China.
As you likely know, honey bees play a critical role in the pollination of many of our crops. They provide an environmentally-friendly and efficient service to farmers, while asking little to nothing in return, as is common in the natural balances established in the course of evolution. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it, but the alternative to bees doing the pollinating of hundreds of thousands of acres of apple and pear trees – human beings – is not a very comforting thought.
But that’s just what has happened in China. Intensive agricultural practices in the growing regions for these fruits resulted in the decimation of the native bees populations. Beekeepers in other regions are unwilling to submit their hives to the dangers of working in such chemical-rich environments, so the only alternative at this point is to employ people – men, women and children – in the task of hand pollinating each and every flower on those trees.
I kid you not. It’s happening as we speak. Men, women and children (used to reach the higher branches that would be damaged by the weight of an adult) are using little brushes to fertilize the blossoms in their apple and pear orchards. It might be not be so serious if China wasn’t also one of the top producers of these two fruits in the world today.
Are we killing one of the geese that lays the golden eggs for mankind? I cannot say for sure, but the eerie silence coming from some of our orchards is not something we can easily dismiss.
(Image copyright: International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Nepal)