Edible Media takes an occasional look at interesting or deplorable food journalism on the web.

Of mites and men (and bees)


[Insert perfunctory “buzz” reference into lead:] Buzz about the collapse of domesticated honeybee populations hit the front page of the New York Times yesterday.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The steep drop in bee numbers is alarming: A bee laid its little tentacles on the flower that produced every fruit, vegetable, and nut you’ve ever eaten. And that means you, too, vegans: these little animals are a critical, inevitable part of the food chain.

Plus, raw honey is really good stuff, and I don’t want to contemplate a world without it. (I’ve already been forced to do so with fish, and I’m still bitter about it.)

The Times piece paints a pretty grim picture of what’s become of bees, and beekeeping, under industrial agriculture.

Like the rest of the farming world, beekeeping has been in an extended phase of consolidation: small players exit the business and big players get bigger.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

According to the NYT, “Over the last two decades, the number of beehives, now estimated by the Agriculture Department to be 2.4 million, has dropped by a quarter and the number of beekeepers by half.”

One reason has been low honey prices, the result of globalized markets. “A flood of imported honey from China and Argentina has depressed honey prices,” the article states.

Another has been attacks from mites — bees’ natural predator. “Beekeepers have endured two major mite infestations since the 1980s, which felled many hobbyist beekeepers,” according to the article.

Here the Times is understating the problem. AP reported two years ago that “A tiny pest is decimating honeybee colonies across the country, worrying beekeepers and farmers who depend on the insects to pollinate their crops.”

Dig deep into the AP story and you’ll find this nugget:

Reproducing quickly and in a closed environment, the mites have developed a resistance to pesticides — a trait they’ve been able to spread to their progeny faster than scientists have been able to develop new compounds to fight them off. [Emphasis added.]

Let’s get this straight. Mites and wild bees co-evolved for eons, living in rough balance. And domesticated bees have lived in balance with mites for thousands of years.

But the modern agricultural practice of attacking mites with pesticides has created a kind of supermite that the chemical industry evidently can’t stop. Mites have already wiped out wild honey bees. Wild bees that don’t produce honey, but do pollinate crops, are resistant to the supermites. But they, too, are dropping in number — under severe pressure from habitat loss, much of it due to monocrop agriculture, as well as pesticides sprayed on crops.

Thus a huge portion of the blame for the pollination crisis can be laid directly on industrial ag. This is a hugely an underreported scandal — another externalized cost of our food system.

So, under pressure from cheap imported honey and supermites, beekeepers are forced to seek profits by trucking their hives out to California to get paid by farmers to pollinate crops. Farmers there have little choice but to pay up for this: Vast monocropped fields, along with creeping suburban sprawl, have evicted wild bees in the nation’s fruit basket.

“California’s almond crop, by far the biggest in the world, now draws more than half of the country’s bee colonies in February,” the Times reports.

What? How much oil goes up in smoke to truck a million beehives to California? The mind reels.

Message: support your local, organic beekeeper. Miticides are the devil. Enjoy honey — and fruits, vegetables, and nuts — while supplies last.

I heart Deborah Madison

My fellow Gristmill food scribbler Roz Cummins interviewed one of my heroes on the new sustainable-foodie site Culinate.com a while back, and I’ve been meaning to give her props for it.

Deborah Madision is one of our greatest cookbook writers. While I savor the occasional sustainably raised local pork chop as much as the next person, my real passion for food lies in vegetables. And about 10 years ago, Madison wrote an epoch-making cookbook called Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

When it came out, it wasn’t immediately obvious to me that it would be a classic. It’s so sprawling, so comprehensive — everything from banana bread to ultra-fancy stuffed veggies — that I thought she had sacrificed depth for breadth. Not so.

My dog-eared, stained copy of that book is where I go for everything from how to properly cook quinoa to how to deal with artichokes to recipes for a dazzling veggie entree. This is a rare book: It catalogs fundamental techniques and knowledge about ingredients, and also contains terrific, unexpected recipes drawing from broad cultural and ethnic influences. Precious few books do all of those things well.

Madison is also a long-time champion of sustainable ag, and wrote a wonderful book a few years ago called Local Flavors: cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers Markets.

Roz deftly negotiated the the presence of greatness and conducted an intelligent interview. I would probably would have been gushing and babbling and saying stupid things.

I especially loved this exchange:

Roz: Do you think everyone should make food a central part of their lives?

DM: That’s a difficult question, and one I think about a lot. Food’s not the only thing. The central spot in our lives can be shared by many things.

Without doubt, paying attention to how and what we eat, and making food central in the sense that we really look forward to our meals together, can bring other areas of our lives into focus, as opposed to “Dinner in 20 minutes!”

But to focus only on food can also feel somewhat ridiculous. I find it embarrassing, sometimes, to say, “Yes, this is what I spend my time on.” In other cultures, it’s possible for people to pay a lot of attention to what they eat, but they also write plays, play instruments, build homes — you know, live a life. You can eat well every day, but it’s not the only thing you’re doing. But it is important, especially in America, where the experience of the shared meal has declined so much.

You know, live a life. As someone who’s worked hard to make food central to my life — growing it, cooking it, writing about it — I found that a startling insight. If I had been born in the south of France or some Italian village, and not the fast-food nation, I could enjoy great food and wine as a matter of course and write novels or be a plumber or something.

But our culinary landscape has been so eviscerated by mindless industrialization (see above) that people who love food have to obsess about it.

Madison’s work as a cookbook author has raised and will continue to raise the level of cooking in the U.S. Someday, perhaps, we can all eat and drink well without having to obsess about food.