To bee or not to bee? How the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies address pollinator decline
17 August, 2020
The 20th of May, 2020 was marked by several notable events: the global number of coronavirus cases hit 4,789, 205; the hashtag #hydroxychloroquine started trending after American President Donald Trump’s controversial admission that he was taking antimalarials as a prophylaxis for SARS-CoV-2; and Brazil became the pandemic’s third most affected country.
However, 20 May also celebrates World Bee Day, the UN-designated day for raising awareness about pollinators and the threats they face as a result of human activity. Although this day passed largely unnoticed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its cause remains one of the most important environmental issues facing the world today.
Pollinators are a core contributor to healthy ecosystems and biodiversity; they are fundamental for an environmentally sustainable world—especially when it comes to food security. Animal pollination is required for 90% of the world’s wild flowering plant species and more than 75% of the world’s food crops, with 35% of global agricultural land dependent on animal pollination (mostly from bees, but also hoverflies, moths, butterflies and other insects). In financial terms, the agricultural contribution of pollinators to the EU’s economy is estimated to be 15 billion euros.
And yet, many of Europe’s wild pollinators are threatened by a wide range of aggressors: unsustainable land use, intensive agricultural management, pesticides, invasive alien species, environmental pollution and climate change. Alarmingly, a 2017 German study found that flying insect populations declined by over 75% in 27 years, while the IUCN European Red List of Bees revealed that over 9% of European bee species currently face extinction. Again, these trends have an economic cost, with a UN-backed assessment finding that pollinator loss worldwide threatens $235-$577 billion in annual crop output.
In May 2020, the European Commission’s coordinated release of the Biodiversity Strategy and Farm to Fork Strategy was an important step towards a consolidated approach addressing issues faced by pollinators. This approach recognises not only the economic role that pollinators play, but also the interconnected nature of various causes of biodiversity loss and its wider ramifications for global societies.
In particular, the European Commission set out two key initiatives:
- The Farm to Fork Strategy states that the Commission will take action to reduce by 50% the overall use of chemical pesticides by 2030.
- This will be supported by full implementation of the EU Pollinators Initiative.
Reducing the use of pesticides
The first commitment is key because, according to a 2019 report published in Biological Conservation, 46.6% of drivers of insect decline (worldwide) arise from the use of pesticides and fertilisers in the agricultural sector. This is particularly noteworthy in Europe where studies have demonstrated that this sector continues to utilise pesticides as a core component of food production. For example, between 2011 – 2018, pesticide sales remained more or less stable in the EU, even though the European Commission had measures in place to control the use of pesticides in agriculture.
However, this commitment is not universally welcomed. Although governments have been increasingly aware of the need to reduce the use, and thereby impact, of pesticides (such as glyphosate) in the agricultural sector, there has been serious backlash from farmers and those involved with this sector. In particular, opponents question the basis of the EU’s policy stance on pesticides; whether the EU has enough bloc-wide data to actually measure the volumes of chemicals that are used; and, if the risk methodology utilised by the Commission is effective. This is compounded by concerns that more regulations will lead to worse financial outcomes for farmers, who already feel financially stretched (and even more so in the current pandemic crisis).
Although the first commitment under Farm to Fork Strategy is a strong step towards eliminating one of the key causes of pollinator decline, many green groups fear that further legislation are needed to bring these goals to fruition. Currently, there are not enough ‘concrete’ steps in this strategy to ensure accountability and that its goals will be realised within the proposed timeframe.
The Commission’s announcement that it will continue full implementation of the EU Pollinators Initiative (up for review at the end of 2020) demonstrates that the Commission is using a multifaceted approach. Despite these challenges, the Commission is building on prior success to set the groundwork for implementation of this first priority.
Building on the EU Pollinator’s Initiative
- improving knowledge of pollinator decline, its causes and consequences;
- tackling the causes of pollinator decline;
- raising awareness, engaging society at large and promoting collaborations.
The EU Pollinator’s Initiative has shown some early signs of success. In particular, not only has it overseen current national and regional strategies to halt the decline of pollinators in the EU, but there are also four initiatives in place to collect data and monitor trends in European pollinator species.
Although these new monitoring systems do not address criticisms regarding the lack of EU data on pesticide use, they still provide critical information that previously blocked the development of further action addressing pollinator decline. Likewise, data on strategies, successes and gaps in national responses to pollinator decline provides the Commission with a firm base to take more ambitious and coordinated actions. This will then enable a long-term strategy for all stakeholders in addressing pollinator decline.
A second, more tangible, positive outcome from the EU Pollinator’s Initiative has been public momentum recognizing the importance of bees and pollinators. One such example is a recent initiative in Bavaria, Germany, where, across the course of two weeks, nearly a fifth of Bavarian citizens demonstrated support for the plight of bees, resulting in legislative proposals to support bee-friendly farming in Bavaria. In fact, public consultation undertaken by the EU demonstrated that 94% of respondents agree that the decline of pollinators is alarming.
A Think Paper by the Institute for European Environmental Policy found that key strengths of the EU Pollinators Initiative included use of the following levers:
- inspiring people about nature and biodiversity to create a social movement for change;
- reconnecting an increasingly urbanised society with nature;
- encouraging commitment from the private sector, harnessing its energy and resources;
- and focusing on the links between nature and major societal challenges, notably enhancing human health and wellbeing.
Therefore, the importance of public momentum cannot be underestimated in the European Union’s pursuit of its Green Goals. Public engagement and policy support enables higher levels of awareness on interconnected issues within this domain, which leads to more effective policy implementation and increases the likelihood of support for further legislative changes. This is particularly relevant in the context of reduced pesticide use, because, in spite of the opposition, it creates more pressure to create change.
The opportunity for policy momentum is also being carried forward on a political level. It was remarked that the Commission’s presentation of the Farm to Fork strategy on the same day as the EU biodiversity strategy sent “a strong political signal” to the EU Member States and to all those affected. It shows that the Commission intends to overcome siloed approaches that previously frustrated the implementation of similar strategies and action plans.
Within these wider policy announcements, commitments regarding pollinators marks the first single, coordinated action by the EU to address their alarming decline. Arguably, although coordinated action among Member States is one of the primary responsibilities of the Commission, the narrow focus of this initiative allows the Commission to more clearly connect the protection and enhancement of biodiversity to other policies, including in areas such as regional development, agriculture and the internal market. This clarifies the path towards understanding how biodiversity (including pollinators) contributes towards the wider EU Strategic objectives by supporting policies ‘external’ to the Green Deal. Consequently, this strengthens their policy position and increases momentum on a political level.
Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, stated that “biodiversity was for a long time considered a purely environmental protection issue, something to do with only green romanticism…but I think in reality…it’s closely interlinked with global health, our food supplies and our economies”. In some places the public has already rallied behind the humble bumblebee, so it is clear that some of this awareness already exists—perhaps even stemming from the extant EU Pollinators Initiative. Hopefully, with the implementation of the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies, the Commission and public will continue to build the buzz required to progress towards further legislative change.