A new strategy aimed at increasing bee populations, devised by the International Center For Agricultural Research In Dry Areas, has been put forward at the UN Biodiversity conference this week.
Global bee populations have been suffering greatly over the last few decades, such as in Germany where a 75% population decline has been seen over the last 25 years, and in Puerto Rico there has been an even sharper decline. Around 80% of food crops require pollination, but the population of insects that carry out this job, mainly bees, lessens every year.
The study recommends that a quarter of all cropland be dedicated to flowering economic crops such as oil seeds, spices, and medicinal plants. This would hopefully represent substantial gains in biodiversity. The report also mentions an increase in income across the board, but we must stress that we believe that the true measure of wealth is in natural biodiversity and the resilience of the living planet against human intrusion.
Pressure has already been put on agricultural industries by environmentalist groups for their farming procedures and intensive use of pesticides, and the responses from world governments have been increasingly varied. Just this year, Brazil’s pro-agribusiness congressmen voted for what has been dubbed as, the ‘poison package’, a lift of restrictions on an amount of pesticides that are currently banned in other countries for their detrimental impact on ecosystems.
Stefanie Christmann, who has headed up the research, has spent the last five years working on what she calls “farming with alternative pollinators”, with trials being carried in out Uzbekistan and Morocco.
“In 2013–2014, therefore, a 18-month-pilot project was set on a participatory basis in Uzbekistan, to test this farming with alternative pollinators approach on field and orchard crops. The practicability and the potential of the approach were tested in collaboration with seven smallholders, two commercial farmers, and two schools. “
“We analyzed the yield and insect diversity (pollinators, predators, and pests) of seven cucumber fields in the Parkent district and four orchards of sour cherry in the Boysun district in Uzbekistan. Here we show that the fields with enhanced habitats faced higher diversity of pollinators and predators, but less pests than control fields. Furthermore, the farming with alternative pollinators approach doubled the yield of sour cherry in 2014 and highly increased the income from cucumber in 2013. “
The technique that Christmann proposes represents an agricultural method closer to the formation of natural green areas such as forests, in constrast to intensive monoculture farming already in place. One in every four cultivation strips should be dedicated to the aforementioned flowering crops. Nesting support for bees and other insects should also be provided to encourage populations to thrive, support such as old wood and beaten soil that can be burrowed into.
“There is a very low barrier so anyone in even the poorest country can do this. There is no equipment, no technology and only a small investment in seeds. It is very easy. You can demonstrate how to do it with pictures sent on a cellphone.”
“Ultimately, 94% of the farmers were willing to enhance pollinator habitats after being informed of these higher-yield figures.” During the test periods, the efficiency of crop pollination was increased, and the amount of pests was significantly lower.
The greatest gains in the four differing climatic regions that Christmann studied were found in semi-arid climates, where pumpkin yields rose 561%, aubergine 364%, broad bean 177% and melons 56%. In rainier areas, the harvests of tomatoes doubled in size, and aubergines harvests increased by 250%.
There are many environmental and economic benefits to increasing the amount of wild pollinators by encouraging the planting of more diverse crop rotations. This can also be applied to cities, where the planting of wildflowers, berry bushes, and flowering trees can aid in biodiversity.
“The entire environment would be richer, more beautiful and more resilient to climate change,” said Christmann “We would have many more insects, flowers and birds. And it would be far more self-sustaining. Even the poorest countries in the world could do this.”
It is hoped that there may be, in the near future, support for a multilateral environmental agreement on the wellbeing and promotion of natural pollinators, similar to the international convention on trade in endangered species.
But there will be resistance, Christmann admits “I think Monsanto won’t like this because they want to sell their pesticides and this approach reduces pests naturally,”.
Christmann’s research comes as part of a growing campaign to change the very nature of global food production. In the ‘Ecological Farming versus Industrial Agriculture’ section of Greenpeace’s ‘Plan Bee – Living Without Pesticides’ report, it is written:
“Agricultural intensification in Europe has typically led to more homogeneous landscapes, defined by large cereal fields and a loss of non-cultivated habitats on farms – such as hedgerows, ditches, woodland, and field margins. In addition, there has been widespread loss of semi-natural grasslands due to their conversion into arable fields and coniferous tree plantations (Meeus et al. 1990). Semi-natural habitat loss and degradation on farms and in surrounding areas, together with the increased use of agrochemicals such as synthetic pesticides, has been linked to a loss of wildlife species in agricultural landscapes (Belfrage 2005).”
Things are looking a little brighter, with a recent EU-wide ban on bee-harming neonicotinoids. “Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment.” Said Vytenis Andriukaitis, European commissioner for Health and Food Safety, after he welcomed the vote.
On organic, pesticide-free farming, Giannis Melos, a farmer from Greece, had this to say: “In the past I have used plenty of chemicals as a conventional producer, but when I started farming organically only then I realised how many mistakes I had made in the past and that I had been trying to fight the symptom and not the cause. […] With the balance brought about by organic farming there are many benefits in your cultivation. You can see that the soil is more lively, you can see the organisms that form the surrounding environment being in a balance that is not disrupted. Of course there are benefits for the planet, because the residues from chemicals take many years to degrade.”