This piece from the Financial Times reviews the causes and implications of a “pollination crisis” resulting from an insufficient number of bees and other insects. Most fruits and vegetables and about three-fourths of all crops rely on these pollinators, which are under severe stress. Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at Sussex University in Britain, notes that in California, beekeepers that are needed to pollinate the almond crop are losing nests, tripling prices; in China, apple and pear farmers use children on stepladders to brush pollen on each flower, as pesticides have wiped out the bees. Goulson stresses that knowledge of the overall state of the world’s pollinators is quite limited—“we do not know how many pollinators we have, nor how their abundance has changed over time”—but is sufficient to indicate a grave crisis.
What is happening to our bees? The answer is complicated – but imagine the following. A flu epidemic sweeps the country, and you catch it. You feel awful but you struggle on, going to the shops to get food. The shop has closed down, and you have to walk an extra two miles to find an open shop. Exhausted and shivering, you buy some food and manage to eat some but it has been poisoned. Not enough poison to kill you if you were feeling well, but in this state?
It sounds a bit melodramatic, but it is a pretty good analogy for our poor bees. We have accidentally spread new parasites and diseases of bees around the world; for example, many bumblebees in the UK are infected with a gut parasite originally from Asian honeybees, while honeybees are being ravaged by the Asian Varroa mite. Modern farming has removed most flowers from the countryside, so pollinators have to travel further to find nourishment – and the range of foods available is restricted. Much is contaminated with a cocktail of pesticides; recent studies found up to 35 different pesticides in the food stores of honeybees. Small wonder, then, that pollinators are not thriving.
Global food production has been heading in an unsustainable direction for decades. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that we will need to double global food production by 2050 to feed the growing population. We continue to clear tropical forests to bring more land in to use, and we try to squeeze ever greater yields from existing land by heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides, creating vast crop monocultures. Yet our efforts are undermining the ability of land to produce food. Agricultural practices are causing soils to be rapidly eroded – washing away in rain or blowing away into the sea – so that 40 per cent of farmed soils are already degraded, and some estimates suggest many countries will have little soil left within 60 years. Aquifers used to irrigate arid soils are fast being depleted. Salt build-up, from poor irrigation practices, is affecting 320m hectares of agricultural lands – an area the size of India.
Extreme climate events expected as a result of build-up of greenhouse gas emissions are likely to cause catastrophic crop failures. Wild fish stocks are being depleted; many have already collapsed. Species are going extinct at about 1,000 times the natural rate, many of which have vital roles in recycling nutrients, storing carbon, creating soil, controlling pests and, of course, pollinating crops. Bees may be canaries in the coal mine, warning us that we must find ways to produce food without destroying the environment on which we depend.
* * *Dave Goulson, “There is no Plan Bee for when we run out of pollinators,” Financial Times, November 8, 2013