Saturday, October 01, 2011

Disclosure of the Locations of GM Crops

Bees are unique as 'farmed' animals in that they have no constraints placed on their movements: they cannot be contained by fences, walls or hedges. For this reason, they must and will forage where they please.

Honeybees typically fly up to five kilometers from their hive in search of food. Their instinct for efficient use of fuel dictates that they will only fly as far as necessary to collect what they consider to be high quality food, and it is well known that they have a preference for certain types of flowers, and that they will make use of whatever is available to them, within their range, that offers significantly greater returns in terms of calories and nutritional content than they expend in its collection.

Thus, honeybees will fly over apple blossom, dandelions and clover to get to a flowering field of oilseed rape that is within their flying range, because of the high concentration of nectar and pollen that such a crop offers. This does not mean that OSR is necessarily more nutritionally beneficial to bees than apple, dandelion or clover flowers, but simply that they find a field of such a crop irresistible because of the sheer quantity of food that it represents.

If we are to retain the decreasing number of commercial beekeepers willing and able to provide honey-production and pollination services, and if we are to continue growing field crops that depend on bees for pollination, then their needs must be respected and planned for. One such need is to be able to produce honey that is recognised as being pure and unadulterated, and thus free from any contaminants, including systemic insecticides that are present by design in many GM crops. Such insecticides may or may not be intrinsically lethal to bees, but may have as-yet-unproven sub-lethal side-effects, particularly on the bees' navigation systems. They may also have digestive or oxidation breakdown products that could be toxic to bees, and/or may prove to have harmful effects on the human consumers of their products, which also include pollen, beeswax and propolis.

Commercial beekeeping in Britain has become increasingly marginal over the last 50 years, largely due to the unregulated importation of cheap honey from China, the Indian sub-continent and eastern Europe. One beekeeper of my aquaintance, who runs 1500 hives with only two men, told me recently that in the 1960s it took one ton of honey to pay a man's wages for the year, while now it takes six tons. While some commercial beekeepers provide mobile pollination services, and some others move their hives to moorland locations for the heather honey crop, escalating transport costs have rendered large-scale hive movements less and less profitable.

There are an estimated 50,000 amateur beekeepers in Britain, whose bees perform countless millions of pollination operations every day during the growing season. While they do not count towards our GDP, they do represent a considerable, unpaid contribution towards the welfare of our parks and gardens, as well as the production of both wild and domestic fruit and vegetables. These amateur beekeepers have their hives mostly in fixed positions and would not be able to move them in order to avoid their bees foraging on nearby GM crops.

I would suggest that, just as extensive sheep farmers will want to know what their animals are feeding on, and to have the opportunity to prevent them ingesting any potentially toxic material, that beekeepers must also have the right to know that their charges are foraging on flowers that will not cause them harm. Until peer-reviewed, long-term studies are produced that demonstrate conclusively that GM crops present no dangers to bees, and produce no toxic breakdown products as a result of being consumed by bees, that any GM-contaminated crops be identified and their location clearly signposted so that beekeepers are not subjected to the hazards they potentially represent.