Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lessons from intersex fish

   A couple years ago we read about a USGS survey of large- and smallmouth bass that covered river basins all across the country.  This survey found that a third of all male smallmouth bass and a fifth of all male largemouth bass were intersex, meaning that the male fish also had partially developed female parts.  (This is equivalent to boys with breasts!)  Intersex fish were found at sites both with and without obvious sources of endocrine-active compounds, such as household chemicals (laundry detergent, shampoo...), pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and heavy metals, that are associated with dense human populations or industrial and agricultural activities.  The survey found intersex fish in every river basin examined except for one river basin in Alaska.  Intersex traits were most prevalent in largemouth bass in the Southeast, where they occurred at every site tested, including very high percentages at sites from our own Pee Dee River basin.  What's especially interesting to us about this story is that no one really knows why it's happening.  We know from frozen samples of fish from 50 years ago that it's a new thing: some kinds of modern human activity are clearly causing the abnormalities.  We know it's happening, but we don't know the mechanism or the specific causes.  Whatever is causing these dramatic changes in fish is in the same water that most (or all) of us are drinking.  
   We see clear lessons to be drawn from stories like the intersex fish when it comes to how we should farm.  Most important, these stories tell us that the “smart,” educated use of chemicals and pharmaceuticals and heavy metals, etc. involves a whole lot of false confidence and risky ignorance.  In other words, we believe the smartest “use” of agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals is generally to completely avoid them.  We think it would be absurd to say that even if particular genetically modified crops haven't yet been proven harmful that they have any scientific claim to being safe.  There are plenty of known costs to agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals (hypoxic “dead zones” in the ocean, the breeding of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the loss of beneficial insects, dependence on foreign oil, dependence on rapidly depleting resources, etc., etc.), but we suspect the costs we *don't* understand are just as great.  It comes as no surprise when we read that the only thing dwarfing modern cancer rates is the rate of increase in the price of cancer treatment.  Intersex fish are one clear example that scientifically proven harm is coming from our “scientifically advanced” way of life, yet “science” can't offer solutions to these kinds of problems.  When it comes to farming (which is closely tied to everything else), the solution we see is to build deep ties with small, diversified farms committed to building thorough alternatives to the “scientifically advanced,” chemical-intensive norm, because small scale and diversification set the foundation for solving problems without chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

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