Thursday, June 18, 2015

1622 Apis mellifica

The year was 1622.  A ship arrives in the New World.  A small sample of organisms were carried with the cargo, with the specific intention of releasing them on the new continent.  Once introduced, they immediately spread across the continent, only stopping briefly at the Rocky Mountains.  (They eventually crossed over to Utah and California in the mid-1800s.) 

Larson's take on invasive species in North America. Not the species I am talking about.

These invasive species pirated resources that the native species had relied on for millennia.  They fought with the natives and quickly destroyed them. More and more, native population levels plummeted, unable to compete with this invasive species. 

And they are still out there today.  They were almost defeated recently, but not quite. In 2007, their population dropped precipitously; a result of a poorly understood combination of chemicals and unintended consequences.  But even this drop was not enough - the numbers have returned, and they are ever increasing.  This scourge of the New World has now infested every corner of the globe.

Like the Asian carp.  Like the zebra mussel.  Like kudzu. And as is the case with all of those other invasives, we need to enact anything necessary to eliminate the threat from this predator species.

Silly?  Yes.  But it really illustrates the problem of the one-size-fits-all solution.  The call to eliminate all invasive species will result in the removal of the water hyacynth, but also the Assateague horses from Maryland beaches (as well as the beautiful feral horses on the Outer Banks.)  It would result in the removal of wheat, and rice, and most species of grass from our shores.  Cows and goats. Our herds of wild elephants.  (OK, I made that one up.) 

And worst of all: barley and hops?  Gone.

We can't let that happen, obviously.

It all comes down to a question of limiting the scope of what we want to change.  My agency has a mission of ecosystem restoration.  But the question always has to be answered: restored to what?  Are we restoring what was there in the 1920s - the period before the swamps were drained to facilitate agriculture?  To the era before white man arrived with an army of new invasive species? Before humans arrived on the continent?

What is our benchmark?

Recently, I have been involved in some pretty contentious discussions with people that I highly respect.  One of those people - Dr. Chris deFrancisco - gets very hot under the collar about GMO issues.  I get hot back - very quickly countering that there is plenty of baby in that bathwater, and that painting with too broad a brush yields indefensible conclusions (he is in favor of keeping barley and hops, for what it is worth).  He reminds me that science does not always result in ethical decisions, especially when there are huge profits involved.  I counter that without the profit motive, there is limited reason for investing in larger, juicier tomatoes. He points to the dangers of unintended consequences.

We have held most of this discussion offline.  We have kept it civil.  We have locked horns on stuff before, and have remained friends for decades now. We are skeptical of each other's viewpoints, but are both reasonable and can be swayed.  We are scientists.   We use rhetoric, but also are able to see the other side. 

So it is with delight that I throw down the gauntlet.  Chris - how about it?  Let's take turns.  I'll open this weekend with a brief piece talking about one side of the GMO debate.  I'll then publish a response piece. 

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