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Empowering the Pollinators

It’s always encouraging when the planet puts some of its most knowledgeable heads together to analyze and move towards solving a complex problem. As with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and other efforts, last month the UN released the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Coalition on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES’s) initial report on pollinator decline. The results are pretty disturbing, if you like food. For those of you not in the know, pollinators include birds and bats (vertebrate pollinators) as well as bees and butterflies, and they are responsible for not only a lot of our fruits and vegetables, but also seeds, nuts, and oils. And chocolate. And coffee. And countless life-enhancing and medicinal flowers. Here are some tiny photos of what a produce section looks like with and without bees.produce with bees

Whole Foods Market University Heights' produce department with and without items dependent on pollinator populations. (PRNewsFoto/Whole Foods Market)

Whole Foods Market University Heights’ produce department with and without items dependent on pollinator populations. (PRNewsFoto/Whole Foods Market)

16.5% of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with global extinction, 31% of butterfly species in Europe are declining, and national assessments show that 40% of bee species may be in danger. That threatens the global food supply, already weakened by global warming and unwise agricultural practices, and we don’t even know what other downstream effects there might be. We do know that agricultural practices can have a significant – in this case, perhaps the most significant – impact on reversing the deadly path that these species are on. Is there one, gold-medal practice that we can implement today to improve the success of pollinators? No, because nature doesn’t work like that. A complex problem requires a multi-dimensional, integrated solution. This is why Main Street Project isn’t just focused on organic foods or animal welfare: nothing can be viewed in isolation, because every part of the farm is connected.

So imagine my surprise when I read that Bayer CropScience’s Global Pollinator Safety Manager (they have one of those!) said, “The report confirms the overwhelming majority of the scientific opinion regarding pollinator health — that this is a complex issue affected by many factors. Protecting pollinators and providing a growing population with safe, abundant food will require collaboration.” I assume his remarks were in relieved response to the report’s failure to single out his employer’s neonicotinoid-powered pesticides as the cause of pollinator decline, but still, when you’re right you’re right. He did, however, fail to mention that pesticides were highlighted as a significant (if not yet fully quantified) contributor to the problem, and that the entire industrial farming system that makes Bayer’s pesticide industry profitable carries much of the blame.

Pesticides wreak havoc far beyond the area of application. The uniformity essential for the mass application of anything is generally more harmful than any one additive could ever be. More than once, the report recommends “reversing the simplification of agricultural landscapes” – moving away from mono-cropping, intensive pesticide application, and the mechanizing of food as an isolated system. We are offering a modernized version of an ancient alternative to agricultural industrialization, and many of the IPBES recommendations  are practices that Main Street Project has been implementing for years. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  • Adapt farming to climate change
  • Encourage farmers to work together to plan landscapes; engage communities (participatory management)
  • Support organic farming systems, diversified farming systems and food security, including the ability to determine one’s own agricultural and food policies, resilience and ecological intensification
  • Support “biocultural diversity” conservation approaches through recognition of rights, tenures and strengthening of indigenous and local knowledge
  • Reducing pesticide drift and … reduce exposure to pesticides

Everything that increases the health and diversity of the ecosystem is a boon to residents of and visitors to that ecosystem, whether bee-sized or human. In its recommendations, the IPBES amplifies the growing buzz over regenerative, resilient, sustainable farming which integrates the work and wellbeing of all participants in the system.

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