Opinion: Could retailer pollinator policy jeopardize bee and grower well-being?
By Bayer CropScience Bee Care Center head Coralie van Breukelen-Groeneveld
In today’s competitive food retailer business where margins are at their lowest and every new advantage may increase customer share, the incentive to find a new angle that gains customer approval and raises profile above that of competitors, even at the expense of sound judgment, may be difficult to resist.
The food retail business relies on many players all along the food chain, from farmers and growers who produce the food we eat, through to the distributors and suppliers, and right up to the supermarket chains and independent retailers who provide it to the waiting public.
All have a valuable role to play but what happens when the demands of the supermarket are at odds with the reality of life in the field for growers? What happens when non-governmental organizations and green pressure groups start to dictate the decision-making process of the supermarket chains, stoking and feeding public misperception and fears without any apparent genuine concern for the grower’s situation?
Following a retailer’s recent decision to ban eight allegedly ‘bee harming’ insecticides from its products, Christina Huxdorff from Greenpeace, Germany was quoted as saying, “This is just a beginning”. For growers worldwide who need these valuable tools to control potentially devastating pests in order to supply the European food chain, the concern must now be: where will it all end?
How many people actually take time to investigate how food gets from a farmer’s fertile field to the chilled convenience of the cabinets of their local supermarket or food store shelves? How does the food chain ensure a steady, ready supply of safe, high-quality, affordable, healthy food? We rely on farmers and growers to provide the variety of fruit and vegetables we expect to find on our supermarket shelves; likewise we rely on the supermarket or retail stores to ensure that food is available and fit to be eaten when it is sold to us.
Farmers have to grow sufficient produce to cover their costs and supply the food chain's demands. For this, they need to protect their crops from the word go – that means starting with the seed they buy, then the plant, be it new young seedlings or trees which will produce new fruit, and ensuring some method of pollination in order that the crop can produce the fruit or vegetables they eventually harvest.
Thankfully, modern tools in the form of crop protection products, state-of-the-art machinery and farming technologies and integrated crop management strategies help growers manage this. To ensure a good harvest, effective and efficient control of pests and diseases, which can destroy the crop plants or the harvest they bear, is essential, along with pollination which will set the fruits and may also increase the harvest quality and quantity. Therefore, agriculture and pollination are inherently linked and must work together to ensure a sustainable food supply.
On the topic of pollinators, an emotive subject at the best of times, we are faced with an ongoing challenge: how to protect them while ensuring the crops are also safe from pests. This relies on the growers finding good solutions to protect both crops and pollinators. However, the recent decision by one of the retailers to ban certain insecticides may actually put not only growers but the pollinators themselves at greater risk.
If growers accept this new requirement, they may have to stop using these effective crop protection products and go back to using less efficient chemistries, probably resulting in the need to use larger pesticide volumes and requiring more grower resources and input. Added to that is the risk that, by removing several compounds that have different modes of action from the grower’s integrated pest management toolbox, the risk of pest resistance building up is increased.
Once resistance sets in, growers face greater yield and quality losses in currently grown produce and, eventually, this will also lead to a reduction in the variety of crops that can be profitably grown. In turn, this reduces the diverse nectar and pollen sources and, thus, nutritional diversity for the very pollinators these measures are supposedly going to protect. Either that or, to compensate, growers may be forced to use additional land to maintain crop yields, so reducing the habitat left for pollinators such as wild and solitary bees, to forage or nest on.
As it currently stands, Greenpeace state that their “campaign is bearing fruit” with this retailer’s decision. Unfortunately, it looks like there will be much less bearing of fruit in future unless growers stand up and voice their own concerns and opinions about this new direction some retailers are taking, before it is too late.