Pollinators and Pesticides - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

4  Supporting pollinators

85. The requirement for pollinators for agriculture cannot be deliberately reduced by growing fewer insect-pollinated crops, because this would increase reliance on imports, affect food security and consumer choice and damage UK agriculture. Pollination services to agriculture cannot be maintained through managed honeybees, because huge numbers of colonies would be required and managed pollinators are prone to diseases—large-scale honeybee losses have occurred more than 30 times in the past 200 years.[153] Moreover, the pollination needs of most wild plants and future potential crops are not known, and they may depend on wild pollinators. Therefore, to provide stable pollination services, policies to maintain both wild and managed pollinators are needed.

86. Providing new habitat with forage and nesting sites may help to safeguard pollinators. This has other benefits, including providing a refuge from agrochemicals and helping pollinators to migrate in response to climate change. Sowing wildflower seed mixes in field margins and corners might be a quick and relatively cheap way of benefiting pollinators.[154] The amount of pollinator habitat needed in the landscape is not known, but expert opinions range from 1.25% to 2.5%. Field trials run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology found that bumblebee abundance was 14 times higher in wildflower margins than in the conventionally managed cereal crop.[155]

CAP reform

87. The EU Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) has increasingly provided programmes that can support pollinators. The Entry Level Stewardship scheme provides payments to farmers for establishing nectar flowers in blocks or strips, as well as other environmental activities. Defra told us that "the design is intended to provide a large quantity of nectar from a small area, to mimic some of the nectar-bearing crops that were once a feature of more traditional agricultural systems and to limit the genetic impact on native wild flower species of the widespread sowing of commercial seed".[156] Within Higher Level Stewardship, a wider range of options is available, including "floristically enhanced grass margins and conservation headlands".[157]

88. However, Defra told us that that the uptake of such nectar flower planting has been "lower than expected" and that Natural England and the industry-led Campaign for the Farmed Environment have been "specifically promoting the selection of options of benefit for pollinating insects".[158] More generally, the voluntary approach of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment to leave a proportion of land on farms un-cropped might provide a degree of further pollinator support before any new 'greened' CAP programme is agreed.[159] In the meantime, Defra is planning to publish by March 2013 "a streamlined framework of advice, incentives and voluntary initiatives to enable farmers and land managers to be more competitive and yield better environmental results".[160] In its forthcoming review of advice, incentives and voluntary initiatives for farmers, Defra should give prominence to measures which would support bees and other pollinators, including leaving land un-cropped.

89. The current negotiations on CAP reform offer an opportunity to introduce more significant pollinator-friendly programmes. Pillar 1 of the CAP, which is funded entirely from the EU budget, provides direct income support to farmers, including Entry and Higher Level Stewardship schemes. Pillar 2 of the CAP is co-financed between the EU budget and Member States over a seven-year planning cycle, providing payments to farmers for undertaking specific additional activities or investments, including for environmental protection.[161] The Commission has proposed that the next seven-year CAP programme replaces the existing direct payments under Pillar 1 with a basic payment topped up by an additional payment conditional on farmers respecting certain "agricultural practices beneficial for the climate and the environment" financed from 30% of the national Pillar 1 envelope.[162] Such 'greening' activities could include crop diversification and 'Ecological Focus Areas', which could include buffer strips between crops.[163] The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry on Greening the CAP heard that sowing pollen and nectar mixes could underpin Ecological Focus Areas and that a range of different habitats would help to support pollinators.[164]

90. Member States agreed the seven-year EU budget for 2014-2020 on 8 February 2013, including annual sums for 'natural resources' payments which subsumes common agricultural and fisheries policies payments. That financial settlement has yet to be agreed in the European Parliament, and there is an unfinished debate in the European Commission and between Member States about the details of the new CAP package, including the degree of flexibility that states will have in interpreting what would constitute qualifying 'greening' activities and the flexibility that will be possible for transfers between a country's Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 budgets.[165] In our inquiry, our agronomist witnesses favoured CAP reform which provided more support for pollinators:

If the Commission came up with a system for paying farmers to produce margins around the edges of their crops that provided a habitat for pollinators, that would be music to our ears, because we have been talking to Defra and their predecessors for 25 years, I should think, asking them what the value of great swathes of grass from one end of the country to the other is when, for a little bit more attention to detail and a little bit more cash incentive, farmers could be putting something in that is far more beneficial in terms of not only honeybees but bumblebees and a whole range of other pollinating species. I would be wholly in favour if that is the route they are going to go down.[166]

91. While much detail remains to be negotiated in the European Commission and between Member States, the prospective CAP package for the next seven years offers opportunities for significant additional 'greening' measures, including programmes which could support greater use of 'buffer strips' and other pollinator habitats. The Government's stance in negotiations in Europe on the new CAP package should be to push measures which offer meaningful pollinator support within the environmental schemes qualifying for payment. And from that baseline, the Government should then follow a similar outlook in designing qualifying initiatives in England (the devolved Administrations would manage their own schemes).

Insect pollination as an ecosystem service

92. Natural ecosystem services provide a wide range of goods and services to society. Pollination is a critical link in the functioning of ecosystems and is essential for a wide range of crops. Without this service, many interconnected processes in the ecosystem would collapse. Although cereal crops are wind-pollinated, it has been estimated that a total pollinator loss, affecting other types of crops, would reduce world agricultural production by approximately 5%.[167] It would also markedly reduce food diversity. Globally, cultivation of insect-pollinated crops has increased at a greater rate than the number of honeybee hives. That has created a growing imbalance between pollination supply and demand which, without sufficient wild pollinators, could limit yields in future.

93. About 80% of British plant species, including many crops, rely on insects to transfer pollen between flowers to produce seeds and fruits.[168] Without pollinating insects, those plants would reproduce less well, or not at all. This effect could resonate through ecosystems by, for example, affecting the food available for seed-eating birds, which depend on insect-pollinated plants for food. Pollination helps to maintain biodiversity and support other vital ecosystem functions, including soil protection, flood control and carbon sequestration. Insect-pollinated crops form an increasingly important proportion of UK agriculture and, as of 2007, accounted for 20% of the value of UK crops, and future land use and crop production patterns may further increase the role of pollination services to UK agriculture.[169]

94. The available evidence suggests that wild insect pollinators are declining in abundance (paragraph 11). One reason why pollinators might lack sufficient protection against threats is a lack of understanding of their true worth. We were given various estimates of the economic value of pollinators to the UK. For example, Buglife stated that pollinators have an economic worth of £510 million a year to UK agriculture[170]; the Soil Association cited a figure derived from research by the Natural Environment Research Council of £430 million a year;[171] and Professor Simon Potts of Reading University, who was one of the authors of Defra's UK National Ecosystem Assessment, calculated a value of £603 million in 2010.[172] Such estimates only measure the direct 'use' of pollinators to agricultural producers, however, rather than pollinators' total value, which includes pollinators' indirect contribution to maintaining agricultural production and natural ecosystems. Furthermore, measures of the value of pollinators to the agricultural economy exclude the replacement cost of pollinating by other means. For example, if bees did not pollinate apples and producers had to rely on hand pollination, the price of dessert apples would rise by about 120% if production were maintained at existing levels.[173] Taking such replacement costs into account (but excluding ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity and soil and water quality), Professor Potts calculated the overall worth of pollinators to UK agriculture at approximately £1.9 billion a year.[174] In Professor Potts's view, however, much remains to be done before economics can capture the full impact of pesticides on pollinators:

The problem is we have not quantified three steps. Exactly how much do pesticides impact on pollinators? How much do pollinators then deliver or reduce the amount of pollination they do? Then how much does that pollination impact on the economics? We are quite fuzzy on the last two, and we are only just starting to make headway on the first. It is a great idea in theory, but I think we are quite a long way off being able to do that, except for having a very simple tax or something equivalent to a tax on pesticides where it would go into a communal pot, but that is also probably not a good fiscal instrument. I cannot imagine many people buying into that.[175]

95. The conservation of pollinators is crucial to maintaining biodiversity in the UK. In addition, pollinators have a significant economic value as an ecosystem service to UK agriculture. Farmers and environmentalists therefore have a shared interest in conserving pollinators. The data on the value and health of pollinator populations is currently insufficiently precise to inform a marketised approach that could capture the benefits and costs of pesticide use. Defra should prioritise its work on valuing ecosystem services and at an early stage in that work address the particular case study of pollinators to ensure that policy making on insecticides fully reflects not only direct financial costs but wider environmental costs.

153   Insect Pollination, POSTnote 348, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, January 2010 Back

154   Ev 157 Back

155   Insect Pollination, POSTnote 348, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, January 2010 Back

156   Ev 213-215 Back

157   Ibid. Back

158   Ibid. Back

159   Ibid. Back

160   Ibid. Back

161   See Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, The Common Agricultural Policy after 2013, HC 671-I and Greening the CAP, First Report of 2012-13, HC 170, for fuller descriptions of the structure of the CAP. Back

162   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Greening the CAP, para 1 Back

163   ibid, para 3 Back

164   ibid, para 67 Back

165   European Commission, Multiannual Financial Framework: Conclusions, February 2013, paras 61-75 Back

166   Q 577 Back

167   M. Aizen and L. Harder, New Scientist, vol 2731 (2009), pp 26-27 Back

168   Insect Pollination, POSTnote 348, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, January 2010 Back

169   Ev 116 Back

170   Ev 139 Back

171   Ev 116 Back

172   Ev 233 Back

173   Insect Pollination, POSTnote 348, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, January 2010 Back

174   Ev 233 Back

175   Q 248 Back

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Prepared 5 April 2013