New evidence is already showing that the loss of bees and other pollinators is affecting farmers.
New studies suggest that crops like field bean, apple and strawberry in the UK may already suffering from insufficient pollination. But strawberries have been found to have higher pollination success on organic, compared to conventional farms, and this benefit can appear as quickly as 2 to 4 years after a farm converts to organic. A new study has also found that field beans on organic farms have greater pollination success compared to conventional farms.
It is clear that the temporary suspension by the European Union of three neonicotinoid insecticides will not be enough to halt still less reverse the massive decline in wild pollinators, nor remove the risk to honey bees. Recent scientific evidence from the USA suggests pollinators are subject to a wide variety of insecticides and fungicides present in pollen, which could threaten their survival, and the same is thought to be true in Europe.
Other changes, including the provision of more wild flowers and fundamental changes in farming systems significantly to reduce all pesticide use will be needed to restore pollinator populations.
However, the Proposed Strategy – consultation on which closes on Saturday 2 May 2014 – currently proposes no real change to farming systems, as all it advocates is more ‘Integrated Pest Management’ (IPM). There is no agreed definition of IPM, and it is variously claimed to encompass a huge range of management practices, from the current standard of most UK conventional farming at one end of the spectrum, to organic farming at the other.
Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director said: “Our pollinators are vital and so we are is calling on Defra to make clear that their preferred European definition of IPM does also refer to organic farming, and to drop their claim that there is scientific evidence that IPM could help bees, when none in fact exists. Indeed, if most current UK farming is correctly classified as IPM, as the National Farmers’ Union and most supermarkets say, then the evidence shows that it is definitely not beneficial for pollinators, as these have either continued to decline, or at least not recovered, after many years of IPM farming in the UK.”
Researchers from Oxford University have found approximately 50% more different pollinator species on organic compared to non-organic farms in the latest scientific study, based on data from nearly 100 different studies. The most recent research looking at numbers of bees on organic compared to non-organic farms, a major global review of 39 different studies, found that there are on average 74% more wild bees on organic farms, and research has found higher butterfly numbers too.
For all wildlife, previous meta-analyses have consistently shown an average of around 30% more of all species and 50% higher numbers of wildlife on organic compared to non-organic farms. The biggest differences occur in wild plants (the start of the food chain on which other wildlife depends), because absolutely no weed-killers can be used in organic farming. Research shows organic farms have on average nearly 75% more plant species compared to comparable conventional farms. The next biggest differences are in numbers and variety of wild insects (which depend on plants), with significant but lower increases for diversity and numbers of wild birds and mammals.
Peter Melchett continued: “This research shows there is a clear solution for pollinators with a known outcome – support organic farming and we can have 50% more species of pollinators in our countryside.”
Apart from banning all weed killers, so protecting wild plants, organic standards dramatically restrict use of insecticides and fungicides that kill insects, including pollinators like honey bees and bumblebees. Organic farming may also provide more nesting sites for wild bees. The major difference is that organic farms have more flowers.