Staging an intervention

In a system so complex as honey bee pollination, or global food production where does one start to intervene?

Clearly the organic food movement (if you can call it a movement) has tried to change people’s understanding about where their food comes from and how it is produced, but due to the premiums attached to its production methods, it is a privilege of the wealthy. In 2012 organic food produced in the USA accounted for only 4% of the total (USDA ERS, 2016).

Where could an artist or designer intervene in the process, or bring awareness to part of it? Ultimately, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is one symptom of our destructive, cost driven, vast system of global food production. The use of pesticides, farming monoculture, the animals caged and given antibiotics…  all of which are having a devastating effect on our environment. The honey bee is one vital part and because CCD is so ‘mysterious’ (read contentious), it breeds inertia.

One critical essay in my research on CCD is Be(e)coming experts: The controversy over insecticides in the honey bee colony collapse disorder. Here the authors explore how the ‘politics of expertise’ causes scientific research, often with a tolerance of 95% certainty, to be regarded as the authority on CCD. Whereas, bee keepers, many who have decades of experience, are not regarded as experts and therefore their qualitative evidence is disregarded even when it takes into account ‘multiple and difficult to quantify environmental factors’:

Informal measures like ‘strong brood’, ‘lots of diverse pollen’, and ‘almost zero stress’ do not easily lend themselves to standardization or quantification and are considered anecdotal from the standpoint of academic scientists. At the same time, these informal measures package complex information with multidimensional aspects into knowledge useful and meaningful to beekeepers.  (Suryanarayanan and Kleinman, 2013)

Ultimately, when it comes to the complexity of a system like commercial pollination in the USA or glaobally (where bees are moved around different farms to pollinate), scientific analysis which relies on isolated factors may not be able to adequately determine what is going on. On the other hand, ‘beekeeper knowledge is constructed via practices that take an informal epistemic form, which makes them conducive to the highly dynamic, local, variable, and complex aspects of their operations.’  (Suryanarayanan and Kleinman, 2013) It brings to my mind the crisis in The Collapse of Western Civilization, where scientists essentially failed with regards to climate change in the public consciousness, as they could never determine with over 95% accuracy what exactly would happen in a future scenario (Oreskes and Conway, 2014).

Back to my original question – where to disrupt? The complexity of the issue, the paralysis due to lack of consensus and dearth of public understanding, seems to beg for a way of bringing awareness to the issue?

The first thing to consider is audience. Who needs to know?

Farmers: the scale of agriculture in the US, and globally, does not lend itself to farmers taking consideration for their crops (other than their yield). No blame is on their part – food prices have been kept too low for too long, and unrealistic consumer expectations (particularly in Europe and USA) regarding how much it costs to produce food show no sign of reducing the pressure on farmers, e.g. 4 pints (over 2 litres) of milk costs £1 in the UK.

Policy Makers: do not have the best record at doing things for the public good, let alone with the environment in mind. Particularly in light of the new US administration’s stance on climate change.

Consumers: here I think I could make the most impact. As public consciousness around pesticides has increased so have the sales of organic food. People ultimately want to eat things which are good for them – artificial pesticides are not. However, those that are poorest in society (as always) suffer most. How could someone who cannot afford to feed their children buy organic? Could increasing public pressure force policy makers to regulate the use of chemicals on crops significantly enough to reduce the detrimental effect to pollinators, and in turn help those who cannot buy premium priced groceries to have better food?

For these reasons I am going to consider consumers as my core audience, and other stakeholders in the pollination industry as secondary.




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