The next time you see a bee buzzing around, it’s worthwhile remembering that much of the food we eat depends significantly on pollination these insects provide. But bees and other pollinators are declining globally, particularly in North America and Europe, putting this essential role in doubt.
In the US, the loss of 30-40% of commercial honeybee colonies since 2006 has been linked to “colony collapse disorder”, a syndrome characterised by disappearing worker bees. Since 2004, losses of honeybee colonies have left North America with fewer managed pollinators than at any time in the last 50 years. In recent winters, bees colony mortality in Europe has averaged about 20% (but up to 53% for some countries).
Without insect pollination, about one third of the crops we eat would either have to be pollinated by other means, or face considerably lower yields. In all, up to 75% of our crops would suffer some decrease in productivity. Undoubtedly, the most nutritious and interesting crops in our diet (including many key fruits and vegetables), together with some crops used as fodder in meat and dairy production, would be badly affected by a decline in insect pollinators. The most recent estimates value pollination services at €265bn.
And the problem could become even bigger as the world moves progressively towards growing more crops that are dependent on bee (and other insect) pollinators. So why are some policy-makers still trying to delay actions designed to save the farmer’s smartest natural allies?
A significant first step
Europe took a significant step in the right direction this Monday as a majority of EU member states voted for a partial ban of three bee-killer pesticides. After the fierce lobbying by the powerful pesticide industry, the vote was a vindication. The bee-killer companies have lost this battle; and the bees have won – for now! This is a success that environmentalists, beekeepers and the considerable amount of European citizens that got involved in the related campaigns can be proud of.
The decision still has to be formally confirmed by the European Commission. But it cannot ignore that there is overwhelming scientific, political and public support for a ban. Tonio Borg, EU Health and Consumer Commissioner already made clear that ‘the Commission will go ahead with its text in the coming weeks’, in light of the majority support from the member states in Monday’s vote. Since member states failed to reach a qualified majority to either endorse or oppose a ban in two consecutive votes, the Commission now has the right move ahead on its own proposal.
This is good news for the bees and for the farmers of Europe. This EU-wide decision is the world’s first region wide ban on bee-killer pesticides. It will restrict the use of three neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) for seed treatment, soil application (granules) and spray treatment on plants and cereals attractive to bees.
Exposing the culprits: Bayer and Syngenta
Remarkably enough, the three neonicotinoids are best-selling blockbuster products manufactured by the agri-giants Syngenta and Bayer. Both these companies conducted an imposing PR campaign furiously trying to protect their profits with no regard to the high environmental costs. They ignored scientific evidence on the toxicity of the pesticides in question and tried hard to delay the ban.
Greenpeace recently exposed their lies on several occasions: the organisation hung a giant banner on Syngenta’s headquarters in Switzerland, attended Bayer and Syngenta Annual General Assemblies in Germany and Switzerland; and organized a symbolic funeral ceremony for a queen bee in front of Bayer’s headquarters in the Netherlands.
An incomplete ban
However, this is truly only a first step, as this ban is incomplete and full of potential flaws.
Firstly, it is only a temporary ban, and two years may not be enough to guarantee that the health of bees and other pollinators will improve. Secondly, the restrictions only apply to certain uses on crops: the ban is far from comprehensive. Thirdly, the neonicotinoids are very persistent and may have built up over the years in soils and be present in other plants visited by bees. Even uses of neonicotinoids in closed greenhouses have been associated with heavy concentrations in aquatic systems causing losses of aquatic insect biodiversity as evidenced by a recent Dutch study. So it is far from clear that even with the ban in place nectar and pollen will safe for bees and other insects.
In addition, more bee-harming pesticides need to be removed from the market. Greenpeace believes that the EU must go further and implement a wider ban covering all uses of neonicotinoids and all agricultural sectors rather than the limited action the EC has proposed. This should also include all of seven-priority bee-killer pesticides identified by Greenpeace in its 'Bees in decline' report.
Four of the seven are not neonicotinoids and we will keep strongly campaigning to remove these pesticides from the market.
This would be a crucial first step to start a move away from the current chemically intensive agricultural system. Even then, only a shift to modern ecological farming practices can be the long-term solution to save the bees, and preserve European agriculture. Our work has only begun.
Matthias Wüthrich is an ecological Farming campaigner at Greenpeace Switzerland and European bees project leader.