Preserving and restoring ecosystems and the biodiversity that underpins them is key to ensuring a sustainable society. Ecosystem services – such as the provision of food, fresh water and fuel, and climate regulation – are estimated to provide between $125 trillion and $145 trillion annually. In fact, 75% of food crops rely on natural pollination. But modern agriculture largely depends on bee-harming pesticides for controlling natural threats to crops to maximise yields. Can we find alternative ways to farm that will better protect bee populations?
Previously, we discussed the impact of pesticides, especially a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids, in one of our Pioneer Perspectives. That was just after the UK and a number of EU countries, including Belgium, Denmark and Spain, authorised the use of neonics for use on sugar beets as an emergency response to the lack of alternatives for protection against virus yellows. The EU banned these chemicals in 2018, citing the negative impact on nature, and in particular pollinators, such as bees. It has also set ambitious targets for organic farming and biodiversity-rich agricultural land in its Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. The Strategy explicitly includes halting and reversing the decline of pollinators.
A more complex issue than you might think
However, the continued emergency authorisations of neonicotinoids demonstrate the challenge of balancing a reduction of negative impact on biodiversity with protecting the agriculture industry in its current form. The sugar beet sector in particular has found it difficult to abstain from them and is where emergency authorisations have been most prevalent since the ban. As an example, Belgium, has authorised their use over the past three years.
It also speaks to the effectiveness of neonicotinoids and the lack of clear alternatives, though action plans do exist to address this. For example, the UK action plan states that alternative permanent solutions to neonic seed treatment are being sought as a priority and references the establishment in 2020 of a dedicated Virus Yellows taskforce. Others include improved husbandry, increasing populations of beneficial insects, and the addition of cover crops and potentially genetic modification to develop new seed varieties.
The continued use of these harmful pesticides also presents a significant challenge for the EU’s Farm to Fork sustainable farming agenda under the Green Deal plan. In 2020, the EU announced plans to halve the use of pesticides by 2030 and to increase organic farming. However, industry and society will be impacted if a reduction of pesticides leads to increased costs and reduced yields, potentially jeopardising the bloc’s food security. Concerns over the use of neonicotinoids led the Commission to mandate the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to examine whether these authorisations are necessary – i.e. whether the risk to crops cannot otherwise be contained, and whether research to develop alternative solutions is in place in countries where they are issued. EFSA concluded in November 2021 that the 17 instances of emergency use were justified for various reasons.
Is reducing pesticide use realistic?
CropLife Europe (formerly European Crop Protection Association) has questioned whether halving pesticide use by 2030 is realistic considering the pace of development of new solutions. And as reported by Unearthed (Greenpeace’s journalism project), chemical giant Bayer has committed to cut the environmental impact of its pesticides by 30% by 2030, as opposed to the volume of pesticides used in themselves.
What about organic farming?
The industry has also raised concerns over the Commissions’ ambitions in increasing organic farming, arguing that the overall pesticide volumes might increase due the lower effectiveness of organic products compared to chemicals. By the same logic, the amount of land needed for maintaining current output might need to be increased which could contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, proponents for organic farming argue that with increased research and development, yields are likely to increase and that the total toxicity of chemicals used should be a key metric.
Simply reducing the use of pesticides may seem like the obvious answer for protecting our bee populations – and one that could ultimately lead to a more sustainable future, by increasing the levels of natural pollination. But as demonstrated, this is actually a complex issue, where means of alternative farming methods create their own issues for industry and society.
The move from agriculture dependent on today’s chemical pesticides to one based on nature-positive solutions is a huge undertaking, but a necessary one for us to leave a better world behind and ensure the sustainability of the industry. As responsible stewards of capital, it is incumbent on us to recognise the current limitations and potential negative effects on people and planet when industries transition from one state of operation to another. We strive to embed that recognition in our engagement to drive careful and sustainable progress.