Your Silent Banana

How many ways can you frame a seasonal diet? On the op-ed page of the New York Times, Bridget Stutchbury, a biology professor at York University in Toronto, looks at seasonal and organic eating from yet another perspective: the songbird’s.

The environmental impact of out-of-season fruits and vegetables isn’t just a matter of, say, food miles. In fact, the long-range fixation on climate-change concerns like food miles might be a distraction from more immediate environmental harm. Stutchbury points out that pesticide use in Latin America, where the vast majority of winter and early spring produce is grown, far exceeds that of American farms. In fact, many crops “are grown with types and amounts of pesticides that would often be illegal in the United States.” The effect is deadly, and Stutchbury, who’s the author of Silence of the Songbirds, calls songbirds “modern-day canaries in the coal mine.”

Migratory songbirds like bobolinks, barn swallows and Eastern kingbirds are suffering mysterious population declines, and pesticides may well be to blame. A single application of a highly toxic pesticide to a field can kill seven to 25 songbirds per acre. About half the birds that researchers capture after such spraying are found to suffer from severely depressed neurological function.

Stutchbury argues for switching to organic coffee and bananas and avoiding fruits and vegetables that aren’t organically available. Tom Philpott at Grist agrees with her conclusion, but adds that although he has “no objection to her use of birds as charismatic minifauna in the battle to end the practice of dousing crops with poison,” he’d quarrel with her limited focus. “I … invite Stutchbury and everyone else to wonder what the pesticides that are wiping out songbirds are doing to the farm workers down south.”

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