Primavera Silenciosa In The Produce Aisle: Translating A Carbon- To A Pesticide-Footprint

Our readers will be familiar with the ongoing debate over "food mile" labeling - mainly a European concern, but coming to US produce aisles - which turns on a trade-off: providing jobs for poor farmworkers in developing nations versus shopping preferentially for locally grown, possibly organic, produce and meats. (The argument is framed as if food shopping is a form of humanitarian aid.)

Simplistically favoring low food-mile products to reduce the carbon footprint of one's diet does not hold up to analysis, say the critics and pundits. Add this thought, and it might.Latin American nations provide much of the produce consumed in North America and Europe - especially during the northern winters. Producers there can spray whichever pesticides they wish, on whatever they feel like, when ever they feel like it, exposing workers and wildlife to materials banned where their best customers live.

We're never going to change producer pesticide choices in South America or Caribbean nations by simply asking retailers to pressure their suppliers. The FDA and EPA know the facts and have not acted. These hazards are embedded by years of habit. Supply chains are long and multi-tiered. Regulations absent or insufficient. Governments beholden to corporate interests.

We might purchase a lead-painted toy a few times each year, at most; and, can easily find an alternative for those occasions. Thus, the Chinese toxic toy scandals of 2007 do not provide an adequate analogy to this issue.

We North Americans and Europeans buy imported produce often; some consume it daily. Sadly, native American birds are put at risk, out of sight, through American and European food buying habits. Long-mile buying means birds dying. This has been the critical variable long absent from the food-mile equation, and the food-mile debate

A New York Times op ed piece documents the body count, using the Bobolink (pictured) as bellwether.

The imported fruits and vegetables found in our shopping carts in winter and early spring are grown with types and amounts of pesticides that would often be illegal in the United States.

In this case, the victims are North American songbirds. Bobolinks, called skunk blackbirds in some places, were once a common sight in the Eastern United States. In mating season, the male in his handsome tuxedo-like suit sings deliriously as he whirrs madly over the hayfields. Bobolink numbers have plummeted almost 50 percent in the last four decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

Note to Think Tank experts paid to trash Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring": this is not an extrapolation of anecdotal information:
Rosalind Renfrew, a biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, captured bobolinks feeding in rice fields in Bolivia and took samples of their blood to test for pesticide exposure. She found that about half of the birds had drastically reduced levels of cholinesterase, an enzyme that affects brain and nerve cells — a sign of exposure to toxic chemicals.

There is more:
In the mid-1990s, American biologists used satellite tracking to follow Swainson’s hawks to their wintering grounds in Argentina, where thousands of them were found dead from monocrotophos poisoning.

It is clear where, specifically, the Boblink is exposed to hazardous pesticides, as shown in the following graphic, courtesy of the US Geological Survey.

Keep in mind that other American migratory birds migrate through, or over-winter in, Mexico, or in nations of the Caribbean, Meso-America, and South America. The Swainson's Hawk, per the Wikipedia entry, appears to be the big bird mileage champion.


The Swainson's hawk is probably the longest long distant migrant of any North American raptor. The flight from breeding ground to South American pampas in southern Brazil or Argentina can be as long as 14,000 miles (22,400 km). Each migration can last at least two months.

Still not convinced that the food mile equation should include an avian body count? FDA or voluntary industry sampling for pesticide residues at or before US customs entry may or may not indicate the totality of what fish, wildlife, and people are exposed to accross the produce supply chain. Still:

Testing by the United States Food and Drug Administration shows that fruits and vegetables imported from Latin America are three times as likely to violate Environmental Protection Agency standards for pesticide residues as the same foods grown in the United States.

Via::NYT, Did Your Shopping List Kill a Songbird? by:- Bridget Stutchbury, a professor of biology at York University in Toronto. Image credit::Pennsylvania State Game Commission, Photo Gallery, Bobolink AND USGS, Migratory Pathways AND The Birds of Big Bend National Park, Swainsons' Hawk

Tags: Argentina