Bees, pesticides, and better food

‘Until now, we have been destroying our planet. We have been abusing it as if we have a spare one.’

These were the words of António Guterres, the UN secretary general, speaking to global leaders at the One Planet summit in Paris. This year, he emphasised, must be the year that humanity is reconciled with nature. 

Guterres is right to call for urgency; our planet is in a state of crisis. A 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) announced that current extinction rates are unprecedented, with almost 1 million species at risk. Put another way, one in every eight species is critically threatened by human activity. Concerningly, those rates appear to be accelerating. 

In planetary terms, this loss of life has happened alarmingly fast. ‘If you compare Earth’s history to a calendar year, we have used one-third of its natural resources in the last 0.2 seconds,’ said Guterres in Paris. 

The numbers are definitely sobering, but IPBES believe there is hope. Preserving the range of life on our planet is still possible, but it will require urgent and transformative change. 

Why should we care about biodiversity? 

Biodiversity encompasses the whole range of life that makes up our planet, from tiny microscopic organisms to larger plants and animals. This stunning range of life is not just decorative; we depend on it. We rely on fertile soil, clean air, and quality water to live, and countless species contribute to these vital natural systems.

Agriculture is a good example. To grow crops we need healthy, nutritionally balanced soil. This balance is maintained by a complex network of life. Specialised bacteria absorb nitrogen from the air into the soil and convert it into useful nutrients for plants. Animals and insects excrete into the soil, and decomposers like fungi and bacteria ingest and process the useful parts. Even the earth we tread is brimming with interdependent, cyclical life. 

Food production doesn’t only rely on good soil. Of the 115 main crops consumed by humans, 87 rely on some form of animal pollination. Bees are the stars of the show. In fact, 80 percent of crop pollination depends on just two percent of bee species. Biodiversity loss has badly impacted pollinators, and around one in ten bee and butterfly species are threatened in Europe. 

What is the EU doing? 

Last year, the European Commission revealed a ‘Green Deal’ which includes a Biodiversity strategy for 2030.  The strategy has two primary aims: firstly, to make sure that more ecosystems are protected from exploitation; and secondly, to use sustainable methods to restore damaged areas by 2050. The plan emphasises the importance of sustainable food, aiming to promote organic, environmental farming and a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides. 

The strategy is definitely encouraging, but critics worry that the measures do not go far enough and point out that similar initiatives have often failed to meet their targets. A strategy put forward in 2001 after the EU summit in Sweden aimed to increase biodiversity by 2010. After failing to meet its goals, the strategy had its target pushed back by a decade. Without clear policies, legislation and high-level political support, the strategy for 2030 could meet the same fate, and we don’t have any more decades to spare.

How can you have an impact?

This is where you come in. As a citizen of the European Union, you have the opportunity to speak out about the issues that matter to you through the European Citizens initiative, which allows citizens to influence EU legislation. If a petition set up by an initiative is signed by 1 million citizens, it will be brought before the European Commission. An example of a successful initiative is ‘Right2water’ from 2013, which aimed to guarantee safe water and good sanitation for all of Europe. After collecting 1,857,605 signatures, the commission responded to the initiative and published the roadmap for the evaluation of the Drinking Water Directive in 2015. 

Sadly, many EU citizens are unaware of this opportunity to have their voice heard. Right now, there are 21 active initiatives which are trying to gather signatures. One of these is the Save bees and farmers initiative, which was started by a concerned group of NGOs, including Friends of the Earth Malta, to protect biodiversity in Europe. This initiative asks to phase out the use of synthetic pesticides, take measures to restore lost biodiversity, and provide support to farmers during the transition. If you are concerned about biodiversity, signing the Save bees and farmers petition is one way to support the cause, but what does the research say about the aims of the petition?

Synthetic pesticides: what does the research say?

A key demand of the initiative is that by 2030, the use of synthetic pesticides is reduced by 80 percent in EU agriculture. By 2035, the petition asks that agriculture in the entire union should be working without synthetic pesticides. Pesticides have been used in agriculture for centuries, and even organic farming requires the use of certain pesticides to protect crops from pests and disease. However, some pesticides have more harmful environmental impact than others. 

The Save bees and farmers initiative is pushing for an EU-wide ban on three pesticides in particular: sulfoxaflor, benfluralin, and cypermethrin. Studies have shown that both sulfoxaflor and cypermethrin are toxic to honey bees, and the European Food Safety Authority held off on approving benfluralin over its potential toxicity. Currently, the chemicals are still being used.

The Green Deal’s targets to reduce chemical pesticides are already meeting resistance from member states, who worry that European agricultural products will become less competitive with these restrictions. Two years ago, the EU introduced a landmark ban on a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids after a strong body of research revealed that exposure was toxic to wild bees. An investigation by Unearthed revealed that EU countries were exploiting a loophole to gain ’emergency authorisations’ to use the chemicals. At least 67 of these ’emergency authorisations’ had been issued since the ban, often repeatedly and without obvious need. The investigation demonstrates how effective legislation is needed to enforce change amid resistance. 

How can we restore habitats? 

It is clear that reversing biodiversity loss will need more than just conservation. ‘It’s cheaper, of course, to conserve ecosystems, or make sure they don’t degrade,’ says Tim Christophersen, who is coordinating a decade-long restoration project by the UN environmental program. ‘But we’re at a stage now where conservation is no longer enough. We also need to heavily invest in restoration.’ In line with these ideas, the second request of the Save bees and farmers initiative is that habitats are restored and that agricultural areas are used in a way that allows biodiversity recovery. 

Restoration of habitats comes in many forms. There are passive methods, which involve giving nature the space to recover. Examples of this are the rewilding initiatives that are popping up across the globe. The organisation Rewilding Europe have put protections in place that have allowed the return of the Iberian wolf to Portugal, reinstated the European bison in Romania, and reduced barriers to fish migration in Lapland. As support grows, more ambitious projects are becoming possible.

Restoration can also be a more active process, as with mass tree planting. Large scale reforestation has at times been very successful, for example the reforestation of South Korea after the Korean war, or the African Green Belt movement, which planted tens of thousands of trees. However, active manipulation of the environment must be informed by research, or it can backfire. A recent study in Chile showed how financial incentives to increase tree planting can reduce biodiversity if they are poorly managed. In this case, landowners were rewarded for planting new trees, and so many replaced biodiverse native forests in order to do so. Research has shown that regrowth of mature, native forests is much more beneficial than widespread tree planting.

How can we support farmers? 

The NGOs behind the Save bees and farmers initiative believe that farmers must be supported through the transition to sustainable agriculture. The petition proposes that small, diverse, and sustainable farms are favoured. A study from Stanford University, recently published in Nature, has shown that smaller scale farms with a range of crops provide better habitats for wildlife and are more resilient to climate change. This is a far cry from the large stretches of land planted with a single crop which characterise much of modern farming. 

Research is currently identifying the best farming practices to improve biodiversity, and the answers are not always predictable. For example, a recent study showed that field size was a more important determinant in biodiversity than a whole range of other factors, including pesticide use. Such findings demonstrate the importance of constantly using research to back strategy. 

At THINK, we understand the critical importance of biodiversity and believe in supporting initiatives that promote a more sustainable way of life, as long as strategies are based on research. Visit https://www.foemalta.org/beesaver to find out more about the petition and the other work of Friends of the Earth in Malta. If you are for the cause, you can sign the petition before 30 September 2021.

Further Reading

Hendershot, J. N., Smith, J. R., Anderson, C. B., Letten, A. D., Frishkoff, L. O., Zook, J. R., … & Daily, G. C. (2020). Intensive farming drives long-term shifts in avian community composition. Nature, 579(7799), 393-396.

Heilmayr, R., Echeverría, C., & Lambin, E. F. (2020). Impacts of Chilean forest subsidies on forest cover, carbon and biodiversity. Nature Sustainability, 3(9), 701-709.

Martin, A. E., Collins, S. J., Crowe, S., Girard, J., Naujokaitis-Lewis, I., Smith, A. C., … & Fahrig, L. (2020). Effects of farmland heterogeneity on biodiversity are similar to—or even larger than—the effects of farming practices. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 288, 106698.

Rundlöf, M., Andersson, G., Bommarco, R. et al. Seed coating with a neonicotinoid insecticide negatively affects wild bees. Nature 521, 77–80 (2015).

Siviter H, Horner J, Brown MJF, Leadbeater E. Sulfoxaflor exposure reduces egg laying in bumblebees Bombus terrestris. J Appl Ecol. 2020 Jan;57(1):160-169. 

Siviter H, Folly AJ, Brown MJF, Leadbeater E. Individual and combined impacts of sulfoxaflor and Nosema bombi on bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) larval growth. Proc Biol Sci. 2020 Aug 12;287.

Siviter H, Brown MJF, Leadbeater E. Sulfoxaflor exposure reduces bumblebee reproductive success. Nature. 2018 Sep;561(7721):109-112.

Tsvetkov, N., Samson-Robert, O., Sood, K., Patel, H. S., Malena, D. A., Gajiwala, P. H., … & Zayed, A. (2017). Chronic exposure to neonicotinoids reduces honey bee health near corn crops. Science, 356(6345), 1395-1397.

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