#AgAlerts: Farmer suicides; unharvested corn; meatpacker rules; bees

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A roundup of news, reports, and research on agribusiness and related issues.

On what would have been Leon Statz’s 59th birthday, two dozen plaid-shirted farmers sat in the basement of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church to talk about how they were coping with the forces conspiring against them — the forces that had pushed their neighbor, a third-generation dairyman, to kill himself.

The weather does not help and continues to be a focus in the Northern Plains. Farmers in North Dakota saw dangerously low temperatures over the weekend. It’s one problem after the next as the state’s farmers try to harvest standing corn. Chase Dewitz, a farmer from Sterling, North Dakota, is one farmer who still has to harvest corn. He wants to get his entire corn crop harvested before spring. Even though he’s not harvesting today, Dewitz hopes to pick up again in the combine when temperatures climb higher. “It’s -8 standing here right now,” says Dewitz. “I mean, that’s a little bit of a shock to the system but at least the sun is shining.”

Agriculture in the U.S. employs almost 3 million honeybee colonies every year, largely for California’s $5.6-billion almond crop. But it’s begun relying ever more heavily on managed native bees—honeybees are transplants from Europe and elsewhere—as renting honeybee services becomes more expensive, as more crop production moves indoors, as we learn more about the ways pollination from multiple kinds of bees can lead to better yields. At issue, though, is the potential for these other species of managed bees to spread disease to wild bees, and the devastating impacts that might be having on our ecosystems.

For decades, farmers have been engaged in an epic battle of David vs. Goliath, farmer vs. meatpacker. Just a handful of companies—including Tyson, JBS, and Cargill—control over 80 percent of the meat market. These companies set the price farmers and ranchers receive for their animals, and often work together to ensure that they stay low.

In 2013, the European Union called for a temporary suspension of the most commonly used neonicotinoid-based products on flowering plants, citing the danger posed to bees — an effort that resulted in a permanent ban in 2018. In the U.S., however, industry dug in, seeking not only to discredit the research but to cast pesticide companies as a solution to the problem. Lobbying documents and emails, many of which were obtained through open records requests, show a sophisticated effort over the last decade by the pesticide industry to obstruct any effort to restrict the use of neonicotinoids. Bayer and Syngenta, the largest manufacturers of neonics, and Monsanto, one of the leading producers of seeds pretreated with neonics, cultivated ties with prominent academics, including vanEngelsdorp, and other scientists who had once called for a greater focus on the threat posed by pesticides.