Food supply chain is bee-ing naïve about pollinator decline
Thursday, May 31, 2018
The declining bee population isn’t news. Scientists have tracked a diminishing number of bees and other pollinators for years.
Some fear extinction is on the table for these insects, and the impact could be far worse than losing a species. The deteriorating numbers of pollinators could have catastrophic results on food supplies, and thus the food supply chain.
A United Nations report in 2016 warned the loss of bees, butterflies and other pollinators could cause billions of dollars in economic damage while disrupting food supplies. Just how important are these creatures? A study carried out by The Royal Society in 2007 determined one of every three bites of food we eat is made possible by bees.
The research looked at over 100 crops and found that pollinators were essential for 13 of them. Thirty were highly dependent on pollinators, 27 moderately dependent and 21 slightly dependent. Only seven were labelled independent of pollinators (nine were classified as unknown).
Among the notable crops reliant on bees are apples, almonds, blueberries, squash and tomatoes. Bees are also critical to pollination of alfalfa, which is a key part of farm animal diets. So, the bees’ impact even reaches into the meat component of our food chain.
North America is home to about 5,000 species of bees, and not all are in decline. But the numbers concerning some of the most studied are stark. In 1961, there were 5.5 million managed bee hives in the U.S. By 2012, that figure had been reduced to 2.5 million.
Wild bees have felt the sting of decline as well. Last year, the rusty patched bumble bee became the first in the 48 states to make the endangered species list, following an estimated 91 percent reduction in numbers over the previous two decades.
Factors continue to pile up against the bees. This year, beekeepers in Canada were hit particularly hard. The Ontario Beekeepers Association estimated that 70 percent of beekeepers in the province suffered “unsustainable” losses over the winter. A parasite is blamed for the loss of millions of bees this spring.
It’s not that these alarming trends were ignored by major players in the food supply chain, but a report earlier this year appears to have triggered a new level of concern. In April, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative unveiled the results of a study that warned businesses lacked important information about the potential risks of pollinator decline to their supply chains.
"The pollination deficit: Towards supply chain resilience in the face of pollinator decline," predicted raw materials shortages, decreases in crop quality and challenges around supply security, all due to a deficit of pollinators that is estimated to be worth $577 billion each year.
The study further asserted that most companies, including some of the largest in the world, weren’t in a position to take constructive action because they lacked proper details about which crops and regions were vulnerable.
In other words, how exactly their specific supply chains could be affected.
Gemma Cranston, director of natural capital at CISL, one of the report’s authors, noted, "Less than half the companies sampled know which of the raw materials they source depend on pollinators. Their supply chains could be at risk and need additional research to identify where opportunities exist to reverse current trends."
Mars Inc., which is known the world over for its many brands of candy, drinks and pet food, could be one of the most impacted.
"The role pollinators play — be it tiny midges for cocoa or squirrels for coconut — is not well understood and can be taken for granted," Jos van Oostrum, director of sustainable solutions at Mars Inc., said. "It is of critical importance we understand their lifecycles, and the habitat and conditions which enable them to thrive. This does not only help safeguard productivity of the crops we depend on, but it could also help establish ways to boost their yield potential."
Cocoa was noted in the study as being particularly at risk.
Dr. Lynn Dicks, research fellow with another of the report’s authors, the University of East Anglia, summarized by stating, "Pollinator decline is a serious issue for crops where wild pollinators are important to production and can’t easily be replaced … Our analysis is revealing a concerning lack of knowledge about the status of agricultural pollination and its replaceability in large parts of the world, despite its clear importance to production of some highly valued ingredients."
There’s also another level of concern for players in the food supply chain that could come as a by-product of attention to the pollinator threat — regulatory changes. For example, it’s likely that certain pesticides could be restricted if they’re shown to have direct influence on pollinator decline.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel, though. In fact, even greater potential upside exists if struggling bee populations can reverse course. In addition to their natural assistance through pollination, scientists are studying how bees can do more.
A Canadian startup called Bee Vectoring Technology has seen positive results from tests in which it used bees to protect crops by spreading a naturally occurring fungus rather than chemical pesticides.
Recent trials with berry and sunflower crops resulted in 30 percent yield increases along with overall improved plant health. Blueberry crops had a 77 percent higher yield.
While the decline in pollinators is alarming, it was surprisingly concerning that major players in the global food supply chain had such little knowledge of the potential impact.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see greater efforts put into research and conservation programs by these companies, but it is too late to stem the coming affects, and if so, how will that impact the food supply chain from crop to consumer?
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