Food producers, farmers and consumers have long considered insect pollination as one of nature's many free services. But mounting evidence indicates that pollinator populations, essential for food production and farmers' livelihoods, are declining worldwide. In Europe and North America, the number of honey bee colonies has plummeted and many wild bee colonies have been lost.
Decline in pollinator populations
The health of insect pollinator colonies can be affected by a variety of factors. Much of the work to date on this issue has focused on the decline of the honey bee and on single or combined factors1 related to parasitic, bacterial and viral diseases such as the varroa mite. Other factors include the decline in the number of professional beekeepers and increasing levels of degradation, pollution and changing weather patterns, as well as chemical-intense agricultural practices and the use of pesticides, especially the use of neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids are insecticides widely used in agriculture to protect crops against pest species. Even in non-lethal doses they can lead to muscle cramps, paralysis and are suspected to interfere with an insect pollinator’s central nervous system.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) estimates that out of 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 are bee-pollinated. In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop species are animal-pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees.
But for the last decade, beekeepers in the US and Europe, have been reporting annual hive losses of 30% or higher, more than is considered normal or sustainable. Our sources of food can therefore be negatively impacted by the decline in bee population
The most recent estimate of the global economic benefit of pollination amounts to €265 billion, assessed as the value of crops dependent on natural pollination. This is not a real value, of course, as it hides the fact that, should natural pollination be severely compromised or end, it might prove impossible to replace – effectively making its true value infinitely high.
Actions taken against the pollination crisis
Thus, insect pollination is not just a free service but one that requires investment and stewardship to protect and sustain it. And with the security of food at stake, environmental and consumer activist groups, beekeeper associations, scientists and policy-makers have begun to take action.
NGOs, scientists and farmers have joined forces over the years to protect the natural habitat of pollinators, while the European Commission (EC) enforced an EU-wide ban of three neonicotinoids in 2013. The ban received strong support from several European member states. However, two pesticide producers sought to overturn the ban and the National Farmers Union even achieved a 120-day-lift of the ban in England, in July 2015.
At the same time, other stakeholders, such as the European Beekeepers Association started a public campaign mandating for more transparency and independent research into the impact of these pesticides, especially in Germany, where some of the pesticide producers are headquartered.
Engaging on bee welfare
At Hermes EOS, we see bee welfare as a fundamental economic debate, where there is more at stake than just honey.
We have developed an active dialogue with multiple stakeholders on bee welfare. We engage with chemical companies implicated in the bee welfare controversy and have collaborative discussions with NGOs as well as food and beverage companies affected by the decline in insect pollinator populations.
We are planning a dedicated roundtable debate with key stakeholders on this issue in the second quarter of 2016 and have contributed to a book called ‘The Business of Bees’, which will be published by Henley Business School in March.
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- 1 Source: Dharam P Abrol, “Decline in Pollinators,” in Pollination Biology (Springer Netherlands, 2012), pp 545–601