Large-scale beekeeping (the trucking of thousands, sometimes tens of thousand of beehive to pollinate crops) is a cornerstone of industrial agriculture. Yet, the industry is largely invisible and unknown to most. My dissertation research is focused on the concerning trends of declining health observed in managed honeybees. Through pollination, managed honeybees directly contribute ten percent of the value of the world’s agricultural products or about $11.7 billion in the United States. Because today’s monocultures have eliminated habitats for wild pollinators, the essential process of pollination cannot occur without the trucking of millions of honeybees into the blooming fields. Consequently, large-scale beekeepers, who manage and transport thousands of beehives provide a critical service to the global economy. Without large-scale beekeeping, agriculture would not have evolved into its current form. The reliance and availability of trucked pollinator armies, alongside fertilizers and water, have made possible an agricultural model ecologically unsustainable, which is the focus of my research. Specifically, in my dissertation Between Bees and Business, a Political Ecology of the Plight of the Honeybee, I analyze how large-scale beekeepers, who are centrally located at the nexus of industrial farming and ecological sustainability, and entomologists and other scientists, understand and work to solve the chronic decline in bee health, which has now been reported for over a decade.
The empirical chapters build on a broad array of scholarly traditions such as environmental sociology, political economy, critical environmental justice studies, critical animal studies, and eco-feminism to focus on the macro, meso, and micro analytical level, as follows:
- The macro-analysis chapter draws on neo-Marxist environmental sociology models to show the entanglement of culture and traditions, economic structures, and competitive market logics that leave little to no leeway to implement change toward an ecologically sustainable agricultural model.
- The meso-level analysis chapter focuses on the dominant ideologies in the beekeeping industry. Specifically, it shows that beekeepers have strong (even blind) faith in technology and science, while at the same time showing clear awareness of the unlikeliness to find any bulletproof solutions for the health issues of a short-lived insect.
- The micro-level chapter focuses on how beekeepers and scientists regard bees in inconsistent, sometimes conflicting ways. They see honeybees as living, dispensable commodities, as animals, as “mere” insects, as their life-long passion, and as their livelihoods.
This research contributes to the literature on the political economy of agriculture, food, and sustainability by examining why and how people engage in behaviors that appear environmentally unsustainable. It highlights the structural, as well as the socio-psychological hindrances to change, and describes the processes of normalization of ecologically unsustainable logics and practices. Beyond the case of the honeybees, my research addresses the inherent tensions between industrial agriculture and “natural” ecosystems, between models geared primarily toward economic interests and environmental sustainability. While insects and non-charismatic micro-fauna have not garnered much attention from social scientists, the plight of honeybees and other native pollinators and insects highlights the entanglement of humans and the ecosystems they rely on, be it soil, air, water, or insects, validating the necessity for socioecological analysis.
I plan to conduct additional analysis of the rich data I have collected and
write additional articles on the intersection of food systems, sustainability,
and animal studies. In particular, I plan to investigate:
· the dramatic influence the almond industry has over the food system
· the dominant ideologies structuring the beekeeping industry.
I currently have two projects I am particularly excited about. Both build on my doctoral research and will look at the political economy of sustainable food production and its connections with a broadly defined perspective on health ( from a social and critical environmental justice perspectives).
The political ecology of food and health
In this next project, I plan to look at the intersection of the medical, socioecological, political-economic, and ethical dimensions of plant-based nutrition through the lens of critical environmental justice studies. Specifically, I plan to develop an interdisciplinary research project to assess the socioecological foundations of health problems typically considered “normal” degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. While current approaches mostly try to mitigate symptoms and slow patients’ irreversible decline, my interests lie in the socioecological roots of these epidemics. There is a growing body of medical literature turning to environmental exposure(s) and food choices as possible (contested) vectors of development of those diseases. I am interested in how looking at those diseases through a critical environmental justice framework could contribute to shedding new light on those devastating problems. This project would contribute to the reframing of health and environmental problems as issues of justice. It extends my current research in that both projects examine health, food production, sustainability, and culture within a socioecological framework concerned with the impact of the capitalist industrial agricultural mode.
Sustainable food production
I also plan to study alternatives to the hegemonic industrial mono-cropping agricultural model. Farm-to-table, slow food, regenerative agriculture, pollinator-friendly agriculture, and urban farming all promise sustainable alternatives but leave the question of whether can they scale up unanswered. Taking a socioecological approach, I will examine the potential for alternative models to mitigate biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil erosion, while also optimizing water use and steadily expanding global yields. Because I plan to focus on local agricultural systems, I intend to offer collaborative research opportunities to undergraduates.