I found this to be a great article. It traces the huge social, economic and political consequences of a relatively common event: the arrival of a single invasive species. In this case, it's a bug: the Khapra beetle. Apparently this bug eats the same things we do and is good enough at it to take an entire crop.
What'll it do if it gets here? Eat all our food. The Oakland CPB team leads the nation in Khapra beetle interception (52 busts in 2011, with New York running a close second with 48), but it's also just a few hours away from the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.
Agriculture was one of the first global industries. Crops planted far from the places where they originally evolved, but in climates similar to the ones they were from, did phenomenally well, often until they became weeds. This is why most of the world's bananas are grown in Latin America, rather than Southeast Asia, and why most of the world's almonds are grown in California, not the Middle East. Comparative advantage is rooted in plant biology.
Invasive pests are the hidden whammy folded into this scenario. When separated from all of the creatures that have evolved to eat it, a crop flourishes-like Superman shot out of Krypton and into the American Midwest. When a crop is reunited with one of its worst pests, though, it's like Superman meets Kryptonite all over again. The Khapra beetle evolved somewhere in South Asia, in the same region where rice was first cultivated. USDA-APHIS estimates that 67 percent of the continental U.S. also has a climate suitable for the beetle
Countries trade food for a variety of reasons. Some countries do it for purely economic reasons-India grows some delicious rice, in a country where wages are cheap. Other countries trade food for diplomatic reasons-Japan has warehouses full of American rice, for instance, because they promised to buy it years ago in World Trade Organization negotiations
As more food crosses borders than ever before, biology is complicating both finance and diplomacy. The number of invasive plants, insects, and pathogens intercepted by CBP has nearly doubled in the last decade. It's an upswing that prefigures a more complex economics of the future, and one that takes into account such questions as "
How much do we stand to gain by importing this rice? How much do we stand to lose if importing this rice brings over an insect we have to spend millions of dollars to get rid of?"
I bolded the last sentence because it precisely illustrates why environmentalist thinking has been so thoroughly demonised over the greater part of the last century. Somehow, the people who stand to gain the most from bringing over the rice are long gone when it's time to spend millions to get rid of the bug that came with it.
Funny how that works ...
Mar 2, '12
But the bug will win.
They often do ... just ask any gardener about Japanese beetles or Southern farmer about kudzu. Wonder what the bug will do with all those roundup-ready weeds. Plants, bugs and germs breed a whole lot faster than we do, so they can evolve faster, too.
Think round-up-ready crops like corn that have already bred round-up resistant superweeds. Who's paying for all those huge tractors and tons of fuel and synthetic chemicals? It would also be interesting to study the incidence of, say, birth defects or cancer among factory farm workers.
Think multi-drug resistant organisms like MRSA and factory farms. Who's paying for all those prescriptions, surgeries, rehab, etc? Drug-resistant strains of staph have been an expensive pain in nurses' butts for at least fifty years. Do we really want more of them?
What would happen to food prices if the world's bread basket got infested? Who would pay to repair or mitigate the damage? Can we afford that? Those are some loaded questions that need to be asked.
Who benefits from making sure we don't ask those questions?
Ironically, it was conservative business people who taught me to ask those questions in the first place. That's why I think they need to be as much a part of the environmental conversation (political environment?) as biologists.
Last edit by heron on Mar 2, '12
Mar 2, '12
Last edit by heron on Mar 2, '12
: Reason: double post