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Agriculture: No Future without Bees

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*Image Source: Pixabay

According to the US Forest Service, pollination is the act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma. Through pollination, flowers can bear seeds which contain the genetic information to create new plants.

There are 2 kinds of pollination, self-pollination or the act of fertilizing itself and cross-pollination or pollination through the help of a vector or pollinator (e.g. wind, water, birds, insects, butterflies, bats, and other animals) that transfers the pollen from one flower to another.

Bees are one of the most important pollinators in the ecosystem. Greenpeace, a global, independent and direct action environmental organization, stated that Honey bees perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Fruits, nuts, and vegetables, with the exception of grains, are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the 100 human food crops (which is around 90% of the world’s nutrition) are pollinated by bees.

Based on the study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture or USDA, one-third of all agricultural output depends on pollinators in the US alone. Pollinators are also the important component of the habitats and ecosystems that many wild animals rely on for food and shelter.

However, there is a noticeable decline of bee population which, if you will refer again to the facts stated above, imposes a great threat to agriculture.

So what causes the demise of many bees? There are many interrelated factors like pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming and more. By looking at this list, it’s very evident that we are responsible for the two most prominent causes: pesticides and loss of habitat.

As reported by Elizabeth Grossman, author of “Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health”, beekeepers in the United States and Europe have been reporting yearly hive losses of 30% or more for the past decade which is more than the considered normal or sustainable rate.

Due to the gravity of the situation, the European Commission (EC) imposed a ban on neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide, for 2 years. Neonicotinoids are currently the world’s most widely used insecticide. Neonicotinoids are suspected to be the cause of colony collapse disorder, and the European Commission made this decision 3 months after the European Food Safety Agency concluded that the pesticides represented a “high acute risk” to honeybees and other pollinators.

Because of the EC’s decision, there is a restriction on the use of three major neonicotinoids on seeds and plants.

“I pledge to my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22 billion Euros [$29 billion] annually to European agriculture, are protected,” said European Union Health Commissioner, Tonio Borg.

Not only does the EC is concerned about the decreasing number of bees, scientists and regulators have grown increasingly concerned about the impact of colony collapse disorder on the world’s food supply. There was a recent study conducted on 41 crop systems on six continents. The study revealed that healthy populations of wild bees are key to successful yields of crops. Scientists believe that if the dilemma continues, crop production will be at risk.

Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at the University of California, said that biologists found more than 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen. He also described it as a deadly “pesticide cocktail”.

However, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, and CropLife America said that the use of neonicotinoids is safe as long as it is used as directed.

“We can use them safely and not endanger the health of bees,” says David Fischer environmental toxicologist with Bayer CropScience. “There is not a correlation with the use of these products and the loss of colonies. What tends to be publicized is not an accurate reflection of the weight of the evidence.”

Ray McAllister, Senior Director of CropLife America said that a small quantity of pesticide is applied precisely to the seed where it’s needed. The major effects will happen during the plant’s early growth stages and as it grows, the pesticide’s active ingredient is diluted and breaks down. “This reduces by orders of magnitude the amount present in the plant when it flowers. If the dose is extremely low it is not going to be toxic.” Mr. McAllister said.

Chemical companies are not yet completely off the hook regarding this matter. Recent studies by entomologist, Kimberly Stoner, and her colleagues at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station found imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, two types of neonicotinoids, in the nectar and pollen of squash to where pesticides were applied as directed. There is also a research published by environmental chemists at the U.S. Geological Survey which reveals that there is a presence of neonicotinoids in rivers and streams. The Washington State’s Benbrook and its colleagues also collected data that shows residues in numerous foods.

So what can we do to save the bees?

Greenpeace suggests banning the seven most dangerous pesticides, protecting pollinator health by preserving wild habitat and restoring ecological agriculture.

Ecological farming is said to be a new policy trend that will stabilize human food production, preserve wild habitats, and protect the bees.

There are a few nations who have already started this initiative. Bhutan has adopted a 100 percent organic farming policy. Mexico has banned genetically modified production. Eight European countries have banned genetically modified crops and Hungary has burned more than 1,000 acres of corn contaminated with genetically modified varieties. A scientist from India, Vandana Shiva, and a network of small farmers has built an organic farming resistance against industrial agriculture over two decades.

As mentioned in our previous blog, Agro-food: Feeding or killing the population? agroecology or organic farming is a sustainable farming system that doesn’t endanger the people, the environment and the animals and insects which include pollinators like bees. Ecological farming doesn’t use chemical pesticides which are very helpful in restoring bee population and healthier bee production. Ecological agriculture also improves pollination, which in turn improves crop yields.

Agroecology is not actually new. We have done this before, but this practice was forgotten due to the rise of modern farming and agribusiness. Now is the time that we re-introduce this type of farming to the public as a first step to combating bee colony collapse disorder.

Bees may be small, but their role as pollinators is very crucial to support the world’s nutrition. Although no one can really pinpoint the cause of its decline, we cannot deny the fact that human activities like irresponsible usage of pesticides and destruction of the bees’ natural habitat are great factors to this problem. As we claim to be the highest form of creatures with such intelligence and comprehension, it is our responsibility to take care not only of ourselves but also of the environment and the other creatures that we co-exist with.

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