Dear Ohio: Ask About the Rabbiteye’s Future

by on August 8, 2019 · 0 comments

in California, Ocean Beach, Politics

Image from Wikipedia.

By Joni Halpern

Ohio is deemed one of the nation’s bellwether states, so we Californians need to give them some advice about the upcoming 2020 elections.

Dear Ohio,

I’m guessing that you, like most of us in California, have not given much thought to asking our presidential candidates about blueberries.  Certainly you have not contemplated asking them about the red-state species known as the rabbiteye blueberry, which grows from central Florida to eastern North Carolina and from Eastern Texas to Southern Arkansas.

The humble rabbiteye blueberry is a hearty plant apparently unattractive to major pests.  Depending upon care and environment, just one rabbiteye blueberry bush can produce about 15 pounds of blueberries in a single season.  And darned good blueberries at that, filled with flavor and anti-oxidants, the latter a favorite ingredient of the “live-forever” patrons of high-end supermarkets.

Ordinarily, blueberries of any type would never make the list of questions to ask a presidential candidate.  But here’s the pitch for the rabbiteye:

Do you [Presidential Candidate] have any idea how the fate of the rabbiteye blueberry bears on the future health and safety of every American?

The rabbiteye is sensitive to pesticides, particularly at certain stages of growth.  It relies on an abundance of pollinators, the best being the southeastern blueberry bee, which evolved alongside the rabbiteye.  But recently, the swamp-draining effort in Washington has heated up, and regulations that once prohibited bee-decimating pesticides are being allowed back into use by those at the helm of power.  And the promise to “drain the swamp” has turned out to target respected scientists working in what once was known as the world-renowned U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Acclaimed scientists are being driven out of the USDA, and those who remain will be scattered across the country so they cannot coordinate their research or aggregate their voices.  They are also being ordered to temper their inquiries and add advisories to their journal articles in order not to mar the non-stick surface of contemporary political leaders.

Without the protection of concerned scientists, the pollinators will have to go, and that will be a problem for the rabbiteye blueberry’s future.  Perhaps human pollinators can take their places; authorities might force prisonersr or recipients of welfare and food stamps to do the work of bees.  (We won’t have immigrant farm laborers anymore.)  But the human hand is so clumsy compared to the delicate limbs of bees.  And it is doubtful technology will surprise us with pollen-gathering mechanisms anytime soon, for the scientists who once oversaw the systematic development of agricultural advances will be long gone, sunning themselves on distant beaches, sketching out solutions to worldwide food problems in their early retirement journals.

The rabbiteye is sensitive not only to pesticides, but to soil content, disease, amount of water, and surrounding habitat.  Its success as a profitable and healthful crop depends on stewardship of those resources.  But that is also true of almonds in California, vegetables in the Midwest, maple syrup in Vermont, apples in Washington, cherries in Wisconsin, and wheat in Texas.  Seeking ways to meet challenges to robust production of healthy crops for a population as large as ours was an endeavor that, until now, came under the watchful eyes of government scientists, as well as scientists the USDA funded at our great universities.  These were professionals who made our nation’s success as producers of abundant, healthy food their life’s work.  Their life’s work made us the envy of the food-producing world.  Now the work of these scientists will go the way of the bees.  What that means for the rabbiteye blueberry and all the other foods Americans have enjoyed in abundance is an urgent question.

An award-winning agricultural scientist recently put it this way:  “The long-term destruction of science that literally feeds our nation is the result of weakening the USDA’s ability to identify problems and make decisions about funding for the most important problems food production faces.  Scientists without grant funding will not be able to address the critical issues.  Will growers/producers who already struggle to make a living be able to fund the work that is needed?  Absolutely not.  Who will they turn to when they are invaded by new pests and trying to grow their crops on land that is increasingly challenged by climate change and over-use?  I don’t think people really grasp the severity of this issue.  If people eat, they should care!  They should be pounding the phones and calling every senator and representative to stop the removal and scattering of the USDA’s scientific leaders.”

At the very least, Dear Ohio, you could ask the 2020 candidates about the rabbiteye blueberry and what it means for the future of our own survival.

Joni Halpern is an attorney, an award-winning journalist and a resident of Point Loma.

Photo courtesy of USDA

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