The loss of species continues due to habit loss, climate change, and use of chemicals in farming. Bees and other pollinators are crucial to biodiversity and our food production. This year’s World Bee Day focuses on sustainable agriculture and while challenges mount, there are also some positive developments in regulations, framework, and overall attention to the importance of these ecosystem services.
World Bee Day is a yearly reminder to consider the intrinsic role of bees and other pollinators in maintaining the processes in our natural environment. The tagline for 2023 is “Bee engaged in pollinator-friendly agricultural production”, putting the focus on a fundamental aspect of our food system.1 Considering their pivotal role – 75% of food crops rely on natural pollination2 – the continued decline is highly concerning. Studies have shown that if the loss of pollinators continue, not only will plant pollination suffer, but the underlying flora will also change by favouring plants that better attract pollinators and thus also reducing the variety of vegetation in a vicious circle of biodiversity loss.3 The inspiration and awe we can experience in nature cannot be quantified but it is also clear that we need restored levels of biodiversity to maintain food production.
Wild pollinators diminish in numbers due to habitat loss, which can be exacerbated by climate change, and exposure to chemicals such as pesticides reducing their reproductive capacity and overall health.4 Pesticides risk reducing the pollinator population directly as well as undermine the specific ecosystems that supports their survival. Even when applied in specific locations, chemical runoff can disturb organisms in rivers, lakes, and the oceans. The agricultural sector is a heavy user of pesticides to protect yields. We have engaged companies both in the food and chemicals sector on the topic, being mindful of the fact that food security is a concern, especially in a time of food price inflation. However, we expect continued focus on how our food system needs to holistically adapt to a sustainable mode of production where pollinators can thrive. The continuing development of biodiversity regulations and frameworks provide some guidance for action.
2022 was a big year for biodiversity and with a special significance for pollinator protection. We have previously written about5 COP15 – “the biodiversity COP” – which in November 2022 adopted the much-awaited Global Biodiversity Framework stating a vision of living in harmony with nature by 2050 underpinned by interim targets. Target 7 specifies a reduction of at least half for pesticides and hazardous chemicals by 2030.6 A side event was also dedicated to the implementation of the International Pollinator Initiative, established already in 2000 and promoting sustainable use of pollinators and encouraging countries to safeguard pollinators.7
2022 was also a year of new laws and proposed regulations in both the US and Europe with some specific callouts reflecting the importance of pollinators:
- In the U.S., 18 states enacted laws to protect pollinators, some of which were by restricting the use of pesticides including neonicotinoids.8 The decision by a California court that bumblebees can be classified as fish led to some surprise and amusement, even though the ruling made this equivalence only with respect to pollinators deserving the protection of the state’s Endangered Species Act.9 Several U.S. states also announced efforts to increase public awareness of the importance of pollinators.
- The European Commission adopted the Nature Restoration Law proposal including a target to reverse the decline of pollinator populations as part of the wider goal to restore biodiversity in 20% of land and sea area by 2030.10
- In the UK, revisions to the Environmental Land Management Scheme provide additional support for farmers to provide sources of nectar and pollen as well as improving habitats for wild pollinators.11 Even with such incentives, farmers in the UK and globally face big challenges to maintain yields while protecting biodiversity due to the need for protected habitats and reduction of chemical inputs.
The way to address these challenges is often termed regenerative agriculture which should include reducing synthetic pesticides, improving soils, and ensure farming has a positive environmental impact.12 The challenge of maintaining productivity while reducing chemical use requires a combination of approaches. We have previously written about the emergency authorisations in the UK and European countries to use bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides due to the lack of alternative protection against virus yellows infection in sugar beets.13 The EU High Court decided in January that no further authorisations would be granted and while the UK did grant an exception for this year, it is clear that other ways to protect these crops will have to be found, and soon. The industry response illustrates additional components of a multi-pronged approach: providing financial support to farmers for crop losses, evaluating crop varieties with partial resistance to the virus, and advocating for gene editing to protect against the virus without using pesticides.14
As investors and stewards of capital, we seek to promote the long-term sustainability goals and recognise the short-term pressures investee companies are facing. In a time of rapid cost increases eating away at farmers’ already thin margins and with economic power unevenly distributed across the value chain, challenges in the agriculture sector should be addressed as part of the whole food system. Earlier this year, PlanetTracker presented its Investor Roadmap to support just such an effort.15 Through recognising the opportunities and constraints for the actors in each step of the value chain, we can more effectively support a future where pollinators – and food producers – are thriving.