The Curt Bergfors Foundation is thrilled to present the Food Planet Prize 2023 to the Agrobiodiversity Index. With US$2 million for one single winner, the Food Planet Prize is the world’s biggest environmental award.
The Agrobiodiversity Index has done something that has never been tried before. It has a vision of using science and empirical evidence to quantify and measure the sustainability of the food system, and translate this into a quantitative index for farmers, businesses, and policy, in order to accelerate the adoption of sustainable and healthy food systems.
“For the Agrobiodiversity Index, winning the Food Planet Prize 2023 means that we can take our work to the next level. Change is a process, and this will allow us to catalyze the process into policies and practices,” commented Sarah Jones, co-lead of the initiative.
“The climate crisis is already well known, compared to the biodiversity crisis. This will allow us to put the agrobiodiversity crisis on the map,” added Arwen Bailey, member of the Agrobiodiversity Index team.
The Curt Bergfors Foundation received more than 1000 nominations for the 2023 edition of the prize. A yearlong evaluations process started with initial reviews by the foundations nominations team resulting in a longlist of the most interesting nominees, picked to equally represent all parts of the food system, a wide geographical spread, and a balanced selection between technological, nature based and social innovation.
From the longlist, ten candidates were selected and put through a rigorous process of academic and practical evaluation, on-site visits by an investigative journalist and a photographer commissioned by the Foundation, and a full compliance and due diligence report. Eight nominees were finally chosen for the Food Planet Prize shortlist and presented to the jury.
On Friday morning (9 June) each of the eight shortlisted nominees were given the opportunity to address the jury in person and tell them why they should win this year’s award, and to answer a few final questions. Following this, final jury deliberations were held and concluded by a vote to select this year’s winner.
For more information on the Agrobiodiversity Index, please click here and here.
In our efforts to feed a growing population we have destroyed vast amounts of the Earth’s biodiversity. We urgently need to preserve what diversity remains, for the future of our species, the planet, and our food.
Biodiversity in crisis
The rapid loss of biodiversity is now recognized as one of the most pressing issues of our time. The modern food system is a key culprit; to feed our growing population we have focused on a small number of high-yielding crop varieties and animal breeds, transforming landscapes, and plundering natural resources in the process. As a result, many varieties of plants and animal breeds have been driven towards extinction.
Yet we now understand that biodiversity provides the foundation for food security, human health, and the stability of our planet. We need to develop ideas that will transform our food system, repair at least some of the damage we have inflicted, and safeguard the diversity that remains. The world needs ambitious, transformative ideas.
Defining diversity – the infrastructure of life
Biological diversity or ‘biodiversity refers to the variety of all life on Earth, from bacteria to bison, plants to people. It is made up of three interconnected components:
Species diversity, the mind-boggling array of animals, plants, and micro-organisms in the world (of the 9 million or more estimated species on Earth, we’ve identified around 1.2 million).
Genetic diversity, the variety of genes contained within species. In seed banks around the world, for instance, are 469,000 unique samples of wheat, 251,000 of rice, 3,200 of bananas, and nearly 25,000 of potato. These varieties or cultivars are all adapted to their local environments and possess traits suited to different conditions, from drought to flooding, poor soils to diseases.
Ecosystem diversity, the variety of habitats on the planet, from the Arctic tundra to the African Savannah, from rivers to the deep sea.
All three components are in rapid decline. We now have overwhelming evidence that more and more animals, plants, and ecosystems are facing an uncertain future and that the primary driver for this is the food system. Agriculture is the single largest cause of biodiversity loss and habitat destruction, accounting for 80 percent of all land-use change globally.
Biodiversity under threat – living through the Earth’s sixth mass extinction
In the Earth’s history, five mass extinction events have occurred, including the one that ended the age of dinosaurs. Many scientists believe we are living through a sixth mass extinction; this time, humans instead of natural events are to blame.
The scale of the world’s biodiversity loss was laid bare in a United Nations report in 2019 which plotted two diverging trend lines: one, upward-sloping, for humans, the other downward-sloping, for everything else. The scientists concluded that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, with the human need for food and energy as the main culprits.
Driving this decline in biodiversity is not only the increased demand for food but, crucially, a growing appetite for a tiny selection of ‘staple’ crops. During the past half-century, a ‘global standard diet’ has been replacing the world’s diverse food cultures. The average eater now gets the bulk of his or her daily calories from just six sources: wheat, rice, sugar, maize, soybeans, and farm animals (meat and dairy).
Of the 6,000 plant species humans have cultivated for food, a mere nine now account for two-thirds of all crop production. From this small selection of crops, we focus on just a few varieties of each. The same is true of animals; while nearly 8000 local breeds of farm animals exist, only a tiny number of these are raised for global livestock production.
Insatiable demand for some foods is leading to large-scale loss of biodiverse landscapes. Between 1980 and 2000, 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost, some to cattle ranching in South America, others to palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia.
The Cerrado, Brazil’s equivalent of the African savanna in the center of the country, has been transformed by an ingredient that makes possible the world’s growing appetite for industrially produced meat. The Cerrado is one of the planet’s richest centers of diversity, but already so much has been lost to monocultures of soy.
Risk to future food security
Relying on just a few varieties of a small number of crops and on a tiny number of animal breeds for our food makes us far more vulnerable to the major threats posed by climate change: drought, pests, and disease.
The ‘Green Revolution’ (the ambitious post-war project to feed the world with high-yielding crops) was made possible by the arrival of modern plant breeding and the development of synthetic fertilizer. While it succeeded in its main goal – of producing more calories and feeding people – we are now dealing with some of the adverse consequences. In little more than five decades, the rich diversity developed by countless generations of farmers was rapidly replaced by a smaller selection of new varieties; higher-yielding, genetically identical, and dependent on chemical inputs.
In 1920 in Turkey, close to the birthplace of agriculture 10,000 years ago, about 18,000 unique ‘landrace’ varieties of wheat were being farmed. Following the arrival of new, high-yielding dwarf varieties in the 1960s, 95 percent of that genetic diversity was lost. In the late 1950s, Sri Lankan farmers were growing at least 2,000 different types of rice, but by the 1990s this had been mostly reduced to just five.
When we discard locally adapted varieties that have evolved over millennia, and they disappear from farmers’ fields, we risk losing unique and valuable genetic traits. In fields of traditional landrace wheats, no two populations are the same, but modern bread wheat has been bred for uniformity. Each individual plant is a near clone of the other, developed to produce the maximum amount of grain and to be ready to harvest at the same time. This homogeneity increases the crop’s vulnerability to disease; a lethal fungus can more easily spread from one identical plant to another.
As our climate changes, scientists are turning to older landrace crop varieties in search of disease resistance and drought tolerance. This approach has been used before. In the 1960s, when a disease broke out in the wheat fields of the American north-west, plant breeders experimented with a Turkish wheat stored inside a seed bank. They discovered it had resistance not only to the outbreak but also fourteen other diseases affecting the crop. Tonnes of food and millions of dollars were saved.
Botanists and crop breeders are also urgently searching the wild for seeds of other plants we may need, including those of ‘crop wild relatives. The race is on to find and save them before they go extinct. Their traits could give us options for the future.
Risk of zoonotic diseases
Science has allowed us to bank on just a few of the highest-yielding and fastest-growing animal breeds for our meat. Just three breeding lines now dominate global poultry production, and most pork is based around the genetics of a single pig, the Large White. In dairy, more than 95 percent of America’s dairy herd is based around one breed of ‘super cow’, the Holstein (and most of these can be linked back to a handful of males). This genetic uniformity leaves these animals – and us – vulnerable on a global scale. Creating larger and larger industrial units filled with thousands of genetically identical animals is also a perfect environment for zoonotic diseases to evolve and spread.
The Cavendish crisis – the clone banana under attack
The dangers of replacing diversity with monocultures are evident in a crisis facing the banana industry. Panama Disease has the potential to wipe out the Cavendish, the world’s most traded banana. While there are more than 1,500 varieties of bananas, nearly half of all global production is the Cavendish.
This variety was planted across several continents in vast monocultures because it was robust enough to be transported long distances and was high yielding. But because of the way the fruit has been bred, every Cavendish banana is an exact clone of the others. So, if a pathogen can attack one tree on a plantation, it can attack them all. Scientists are working against the clock to find disease-resistant genes to this disease in wild banana plants found in the birthplace of the fruit, Papua New Guinea. It could be that ancient DNA may help the Cavendish to protect itself.
Similar problems are facing other food crops, including Arabica coffee (the source of most of the world’s espressos and cappuccinos). Because almost all cultivated Arabica descends from a small number of plants smuggled out of Yemen in the 17th century, it has a much narrower genetic base than its wild relatives. Again, monocultures of this crop have left it vulnerable to disease. Like a stock portfolio with just a few holdings, crops grown this way become vulnerable to catastrophes.
Safeguarding the future
The importance of preserving biodiversity can be illustrated by the survival of a mysterious and endangered plant growing in southern Mexico. This rare type of maize, called Oloton, is grown by an indigenous community in a high-altitude village in Oaxaca. It oozes a strange mucus from aerial roots which scientists have discovered allows the plant to self-fertilize. In a world awash with synthetic nitrogen manufactured with fossil fuels, this maize may hold important clues for future food security. It is also a stark reminder of how indigenous people and their food and farming cultures have helped to preserve diversity. Often, it’s they who are the last defenders of fragile ecosystems.
Our own biodiversity loss: The human gut microbiome
A diverse diet is important for the health of our microbiome, which is made up of trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live inside our gut. Science is revealing how important the microbiome is for our health. The more diverse our diets, the more diverse our gut microbiomes become, which in turn brings benefits to our health. We each have the most selfish of reasons to preserve the diversity of our food; our own wellbeing.
To achieve food resilience, we need to think big and small.
All over the world, people are finding ways to change food systems and help preserve biodiversity. Some of these efforts are based on large-scale thinking aimed at reimagining agriculture; others are intensely local.
One of the most ambitious suggestions comes from E.O. Wilson. In his book Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, he suggests protecting the planet by preserving huge areas, land left undisturbed by humans. The idea is that half of the planet’s surface should be dedicated to flora and fauna, the equivalent of World Heritage sites for biodiversity.
Change is possible on a smaller scale too. The Crop Wild Relative project in the UK is working with wheat’s oldest ancestors, hoping to recover some of the phenotypic plasticity that modern wheats have lost but which the plant’s wild ancestors still retain.
In the east of India, on a two-acre plot in Odisha, seed collector Debal Deb is growing nearly 1,500 different varieties of rice. Many have been collected from remote farms, passed down through generations, often saved by just one farmer. Deb’s collection includes a variety that’s flood-tolerant, capable of surviving after being submerged for weeks; another can grow in soil with high-saline soils.
Alex Atala is Brazil’s most celebrated chef. His ATA Foundation runs eight projects designed to help indigenous groups flourish by making use of their own culture and traditions, ‘It makes sense to protect the people who protect diversity’, he argues.
Also in Brazil, Leontino Balbo’s business, Native, produces 34 percent of the world’s organic sugar (75,000 tonnes annually). On land where farmers once depended on chemical fertilizers, pesticides have been exchanged for a system of natural pest and disease management in which naturally resistant crop varieties flourish.
In Mexico City, Francisco Musi and Sofia Casarin have founded Tamoa, a company that makes traditional tortillas using Mexican maize varieties. In doing this, they are working to protect Mexican landraces, many of which are disappearing, pushed out by imported American corn.
Founded in Italy, the Ark of Taste is an online catalog of endangered foods compiled by the Slow Food movement. So far, more than 5000 endangered foods from more than 100 countries have been put on the Ark. It’s testament to the many people the world over who are working to save their own local food traditions – and it gives us hope.
The word biodiversity has only recently gained currency because humans are in the process of destroying what it refers to. But as the work of organizations, scientists, thinkers, chefs, and activists reminds us, this moment of crisis also represents an opportunity to heal the planet and protect the generations to come.
Deciding what to eat can be daunting. Let alone whether the food is good for oneself and sustainable for the planet. Should it be organic, fairtrade, local, seasonal, plant-based? And beyond today’s conventional farming methods, can it build on novel FoodTech that bypass finite planetary resources? The food system is complex, and more research is needed to educate both producer and consumer choices. The concept of gastronomic landscapes can bring an initial response.
Six months ago, Stockholm University awarded a professorship in sustainable food systems to Dr. Line Gordon, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC). The 10-year tenure is funded through a SEK 20 million donation by the Curt Bergfors Foundation, and we recently had a chat with the top scientist to unpack how her research can influence what’s on our plates and how we produce it.
Understanding the people-nature interplay
Forests are vanishing, oceans acidifying, and as a result, food diversity is decreasing. But don’t be mistaken: the ongoing environmental degradation is not happening in a vacuum. It’s human-induced. “People have so fundamentally transformed the biosphere in which human societies are embedded that we’ve undermined it in ways that threaten our very existence,” regrets Prof. Gordon. This people-nature interplay calls for a deeper understanding of how human behavior impacts nature.
Sustainability Science – a new field of research that bridges natural and social sciences to write a recipe for a thriving human society within the limits of our planet – is, therefore, the rising star of environmental studies. “This broad approach allows us to identify leverage points that can transform harmful human behaviors, build sustainable food systems, improve human health and strengthen biosphere resilience,” she says.
Challenge: Food systems as critical drivers of planetary degradation
We know that the food we eat, or don’t eat for that matter, has a profound impact on the planet. The global food system emits one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, accounts for 70% of all water used by humans, and occupies 1/3 of the Earth’s land surface. By destroying forests to make room for livestock and a ridiculously small selection of staple foods, it’s also the primary driver of biodiversity loss. An FAO report revealed in 2019 that a mere 9 out of 6000 plant species account for 2/3 of all crop production. To make matters worse, terroirs that could hold the key to biosphere regeneration are disappearing along with the genetic diversity.
Research focus: Gastronomic landscapes as key drivers of sustainability
To help alleviate biodiversity, biosphere, and terroir losses, the professorship will focus, among other topics, on gastronomic landscapes. Rangelands, forests, wetlands, urban gardens, and coastal zones generating produce that nurture both human and planetary health, that is. “This focus showcases the know-how needed to both manage and strengthen the resilience of these landscapes. It also enables the advancement of culinary craftsmanship and innovation. And by doing so, it can improve biosphere stewardship,” explains Line Gordon.
Her research intends to demonstrate how we can leverage the “art of eating well,” meaning practices and skills mobilized to select and cook good food, to improve these gastronomic landscapes. “Emphasizing ingredient appreciation can stimulate interest in aspects of stewardship such as understanding, caring for, and cultivating a sense of belonging in the biosphere. These aspects are often ignored in more industrial food systems,” she states.
Cross-pollinating with FoodTech
As gastronomic landscapes enter sustainability science, identifying and mobilizing key actors is a crucial stage. Prof. Gordon will expand her already extensive network of scientists, public authorities, and businesses to include the culinary and FoodTech sectors. Her experience as co-chair of the 2020 Food Planet Prize Jury reminded her of the multitude of available opportunities to build better food systems. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but rather a mosaic of solutions coming from around the world,” she says. “We need to draw from the diversity of good practices and innovations that exist,” she adds. And Line Gordon is optimistic that we can sustainably reshape the global food system with a better understanding of the many complex and adaptive systems it consists of.
Divide and conquer: A glocal analysis of food systems
In true glocal fashion – think global, act local – Line started with a deep dive into Nordic food systems. Her team is developing scenarios that’ll outline how to transform these. To this end, They’re mapping out key actors in the region, with a particular focus on FoodTech. To identify and mobilize these actors, SRC has welcomed two new Ph.D. students.
The SEK 20 million (approximately 2.5 million USD) donation for the Curt Bergfors Professorship also enables the Center to explore new research avenues. “The security offered by this long-term funding allows novel, bolder, and more strategic thinking,” she comments. SRC is already expanding its course catalog. For instance, the Center hosted an international Ph.D. course on food system resilience this spring and launched an undergraduate course in sustainability science this fall. The course puts a particular emphasis on business engagement in sustainable development. Furthermore, SRC’s 2022 Executive Training program will focus on food system transformation.
The food that lands on our plates devours enormous amounts of resources and puts mounting pressure on our planet. But it doesn’t have to. Probing human behaviors and leveraging both traditional know-how and modern innovations could well be key to reshaping our food systems. We’re looking forward to following up on Professor Line Gordon’s findings.
This piece is the first in a series of articles documenting research hypotheses and findings from the “Curt Bergfors Professorship in Sustainability Science with a Focus on Sustainable Food Systems.”
Despite being made of concrete and stone, metropolitan areas are increasingly becoming havens for pollinators. Globally, cities are replacing groomed greenery with urban meadows and encouraging beekeeping. The concept of planting wildflowers to sustain bees has even caught on within the agrarian community.
On August 11, this year’s first giant Asian “murder hornet” was sighted in Washington State. An invasive species and a true thug, it preys and feeds on pollinators, complicating a rapidly unfolding global life struggle as it threatens our long-term food supply, which, to a large extent, depends on crops that need pollination.
In the countryside, the bees’ buffets of blossoms have been appropriated by extensive monocultures – growing one crop at a time over endless areas, resulting in short blooming periods, with flowers that, for the most part, don’t even offer the nectar bees require.
Intensive agriculture is nature’s bulldozer, utilizing vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to ensure ballooning harvests at the expense of soil health and pollinators. It has led to large-scale fragmentation, habitat degradation, and bee colony loss. Paradoxically, our race to feed more mouths might actually result in fewer full bellies.
City-dwellers will play an essential role in preserving biodiversity – and the declining number of bees – as housing developments, infrastructure, commercial edifices, etc., continue to take over what was once rural, flowering smorgasbords for bees. The UN predicts that 68% of the world’s population will have settled in urban areas by 2050.
Like humans, bees – both native bee species and domesticated honey bees – are relocating to urban environments, fleeing the countryside for metropolitan areas where they are less likely to encounter pesticides. “Cities with initiatives to create green spaces and limit the use of pesticides fare best when it comes to supporting bee diversity in general. In fact, a growing number of cities – such as Seattle – have banned pesticides on public lands,” explains Guillermo Fernandez, Founder and Executive Director of The Bee Conservancy, a New York-based organization that works to protect bees and secure environmental- and food justice through education, research, advocacy, and habitat creation.
Planting biodiversity-boosting, flowering meadows in urban areas has proven to enhance the conservation of pollinators. Bees thrive in blooming city environments that act as hotspots for bees’ pollination services and offer them food and shelter on prime real estate.
Bee-friendly urban gardens are sprouting worldwide. They might not be as manicured as the formal displays of cultivated flowerbeds we’re used to, but they’re kinder to the environment and cheaper to plant and maintain. These bohemian “prairies” form ecosystems that also support birds and other creatures, and their extended flowering periods are a relay race of varietals, delectable and vital to threatened pollinators. A study published in PLOS One scientific journal shows that perennial meadows produce 20 times more nectar and six times more pollen than annual versions, though pollinators are even grateful for weeds such as dandelions.
Cultivating less “coiffed” green spaces (that only need mowing twice a year) instead of cost- and chemical-intensive lawns also means curbing the substantial CO2 emissions produced by petrol- or diesel-powered mowers. What’s more, urban meadows have sturdier root systems that can retain larger quantities of water, making them drought-resistant and capable of absorbing heavy rains that might otherwise result in flooding. Add to that their capacity to filter pollution and smog, and it’s easy to see why these no-fuss green areas are becoming more popular.
In Germany, where almost half of the circa 580 native wild bee species are endangered, more than 100 “ungroomed” heaths have been planted in urban areas nationwide. Hamburg recently unveiled a series of flowerbeds on top of bus shelters. Berlin has set aside 1.5 million Euros to seed and nurture over 50 wild gardens, while Munich has already planted more than 30 of them in the past three years. Stuttgart, Leipzig, and Braunschweig have rolled out similar initiatives.
To the east, Polish entrepreneur Karol Podyma has established an educational foundation to raise awareness about urban meadows. Based in Warsaw’s outskirts, the eco-minded activist now sells wildflower seed kits and advises municipalities, locally and in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. By his own estimates, his seed company, Łąki Kwietne, sold enough seeds last year to plant an area equal to one million square meters.
To the west, the U.K. boasts the world’s largest urban meadow, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. The country’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) coordinates an annual Bees’ Needs Week with conservation groups, businesses, charities, and academic institutions. The initiative highlights the importance of pollinators and teaches people how to support them.
Ultra-small-scale landscaping helps too. Anyone with a windowsill or a garden patch can aid the bees by planting flowers, trees, and shrubs. Avoiding pesticides should be obvious; not mowing down dandelions or yanking out flowering weeds does excellent service too.
Roadsides are another area that could use less primping. Not mowing them as regularly would actually provide far more pollinator forage than urban meadows.
Suddenly, in a “woke” moment for nature, people are starting to understand that bees are vital. Pollinators affect 35% of the world’s agricultural output. They impact the commercial and nutritional quality, the volumes, and the sustained production of 87 of the top 100+ human food crops.
Bees and other pollinators (birds, bats, butterflies) ensure food security and improve the quality of our nutrition – you could even say they fight hunger. Over 20,000 species of bees, both wild and domesticated, perform about 80% of all plant pollination worldwide; approximately 250,000 species of flowering plants need them to produce seeds. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, while bees pollinate fruits, nuts, seed crops, and most vegetables. Bees also pollinate fiber such as cotton and hay and alfalfa, grown to feed livestock; one could argue that they’re indirectly responsible for the t-shirt on your back and the milk in your coffee.
Urban beekeeping is buzzing
There was a time when hipsters would take butchering classes and nurture sourdough starters to cultivate a back-to-basics lifestyle. These days, people are turning to urban beekeeping, be it to bring a bit of farming spirit into the city sprawl or as a concerted effort to do something for the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has given the practice a further boost as cooped up cosmopolites search for safe outdoor activities.
Larger apiaries and single beehives have popped up on rooftops and balconies, in backyards, public parks, school- and community gardens, and, in one extreme case, in a Manhattan bedroom where Andrew Coté, the president of the New York City Beekeepers Association, temporarily kept a colony that needed relocation. He estimates there are more than 600 hives in the Big Apple, including a 2.5m tall Empire State Building hive and a village of Dutch colonial houses, both courtesy of The Bee Conservancy. That’s rather paltry, though, compared to London, where hives have doubled in the past ten years to about 7,400. The number of urban beekeepers is rising by 200% annually, according to FAO, whose statistics also indicate that there are 90 million honey bee hives globally. The organization initiated World Bee Day in 2018, celebrated annually on May 20, a date chosen to honor Anton Janša, the pioneer of modern apiculture, born in 1734, in Slovenia, a nature-loving republic where apiculture has a rich history, both as an agricultural activity, and as an urban enterprise; the town of Idrija has kept a municipal apiary for nearly 100 years.
“The magic of urban beekeeping is seeing the impact the practice has not just on local ecology in parks, community gardens, and beyond, but also for urban individuals who get a chance to connect with nature and the creatures responsible for the food and foliage they love. The concrete jungle is still a jungle, and the chance to create wonder and engagement with the tiny pillars of our ecosystem helps foster future generations of environmental stewards,” assures Fernadez, adding that “if you want local food, you really need to have local bees. And recent research has revealed that by placing bees in a community farm or garden, you can increase crop yield by up to 70%.”
Urban apiculture can also be a tool for social change. Fernandez grew up in what he calls a ”food desert; a low-income area with limited access to nutritious food”. He founded The Bee Conservancy to alleviate hunger and support food security through bee conservation. The organization empowers low-income communities to care for bees and educate them about bee conservation.
“Beekeeping is expensive, so we created Sponsor-A-Hive to gift wild bee houses and honey bee hives to community organizations that were doing incredible work but couldn’t afford their own beehives. We strategically award and place these pollinators in community and school gardens and urban farms that provide locally grown food to soup kitchens, senior citizen centers, and other vulnerable populations. These beehives also act as educational hubs in their community. We provide hours of training and technical support to ensure the bees thrive,” says Fernandez.
As valiant urban beekeeping might be for (primarily imported) honey bees, native pollinators aren’t appreciating the gesture. Honey bees threaten their health and survival; they overpopulate green areas and hog the forage, making it harder for wild species to feed themselves and survive. The London Beekeepers’ Association (LBKA) estimates that one honey bee hive will consume 250 kg of nectar and 50 kg of pollen before the honey crop is collected. Wild pollinators just can’t keep up with the competition; they may well die out.
Alarmingly, there’s ample evidence that we’re heading toward a sixth major extinction of biological diversity. A third of the insect species worldwide are endangered. Insect abundance has declined by 75% in the past 50 years, with catastrophic impacts on our food chain. Current pollinator extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal due to human impacts, notably intensive monocropping and its use of pesticides. As a result, many bee and butterfly species could well disappear, amounting to a 40% biodiversity loss. This also affects birds, frogs, fish, and other creatures that feed on insects.
Making matters worse, bees are tremendously affected by climate change, according to a team of researchers at Penn State University. Their January 2021 study, featured in Science Daily, concluded that the most critical factor influencing wild bee abundance and species diversity was the weather, particularly temperature and rainfall, which are more important than the amount of suitable habitat or floral and nesting resources. Different bee species are affected by different weather conditions. For example, areas with more rain had fewer spring bees as rain limits their ability to collect food. Warm winters have caused plants to bloom earlier; when bees – who are used to specific climate cues – come out of hibernation, the flowers they need to feed on have already died. These balmy cold seasons, combined with longer, hotter summers that frazzle all blooms, lead to higher average temperatures that, in turn, cause reductions in bees’ body mass and fat content and higher mortality and shorter life spans.
Droughts, floods, and other extreme climate events also hinder pollination primarily by desynchronizing the demand (flowers in bloom) with the supply of service providers (abundant and diverse populations of pollinators).
The threat from within
“Competitive species are also a concern, notably the Africanized ”killer” bee and the Asian ”murder” hornet that recently gate-crashed the Northwest U.S. for the second year in a row”
If mismanaged, beehives can become cramped Petri dishes of contagion because they’re densely populated and often stacked close together. The diseases honey bees foster can easily spread to native pollinators – that are, incidentally, “better than honey bees at pollinating native crops such as berries (pollinated by blueberry bees), avocado (by stingless bees), and cucumber (by squash bees).”
So far, more than 20 honey bee viruses have been identified. They can kill developing offspring, decrease the life span of adult bees, cause spasms and tremors, reduce cognitive skills, and impair wing development. Most honey bee colonies have multiple viruses that fluctuate throughout the year.
Parasites also bring sickness and ruin. Varroa destructor has so far caused the most damage. Discovered in Southeast Asia in 1904, this invasive mite reached Europe and North America in the 1980s and has now spread almost worldwide. About the size of a pinhead, it feeds on bees’ “blood” and spreads from one hive to another, transmitting viral diseases and bacteria while reproducing on honey bee brood (developing larvae or pupae). Eventually, at high infestation rates, the mites overwhelm and kill the host colony.
Another menace to honey bees is the Nosema ceranae, a microscopic fungus that can weaken or even wipe out colonies. Spores of the fungus survive on wax combs and stored food inside colonies. When worker bees eat them, the fungus invades the lining of the intestine. If highly infected, bees cannot digest efficiently and die prematurely. Beekeepers disinfect hives and use antibiotics (fumagillin) to control the disease. However, there is evidence that fumagillin is toxic, causing chromosomal aberrations, carcinogenicity in humans, and alterations to the bee’s hypopharyngeal gland (the gland that contributes to making royal jelly). Many countries outside the Americas, including the EU, have banned it for agricultural use.
Competitive species (with evocative names) are also a concern, notably the killer bee and the murder hornet that recently gate-crashed the Northwest U.S. for the second year in a row. The latter can exceed 5 cm and feeds on other insects, including honey bees.
Then there’s Colony Collapse Disorder, an abnormal phenomenon, first recorded in 2006. It causes worker bees to mysteriously and abruptly die en masse, leaving a bounty of food as well as their queen and her offspring behind. The syndrome has been observed in the United States, most of Europe, as well as some African and Asian countries, particularly in Egypt and China. The UN Environmental Programme addressed the emerging problem already in 2010 in its exhaustive report, Global bee colony disorders and other threats to insect pollinators.
The anthropocene threats
Humans, many of us at least, are directly contributing to a fair share of damage. The air pollution we cause thwarts the symbiotic relationship between pollinators and flowers. Although daytime insects depend primarily on vision to find flowers, pollutants affect the chemicals flowers produce to attract insects, destroying scent trails. Aromas that could travel over 800 m in the 1800s now reach less than 200 m from the plant, complicating pollinators’ ability to locate food sources.
Electric and magnetic fields emanating from, e.g., power lines and cellphone towers may also influence bee behavior, impairing cognitive and motor abilities. Bees are highly attracted to electromagnetic radiation. When in use, mobile phones project electromagnetic waves that interfere with the bees’ navigation system, confusing them enough to make them forget how to find their way back home. Yet another reason to put down that device! (Even though there is currently insufficient data and research to establish a causal link between the impact of these fields and bee mortality.)
The industrial agribusiness is wreaking havoc with its use of neonicotinoids, or neonics, a class of synthetic insecticides that have become the industry’s pest-fighter of choice. First marketed in the mid-1990s, their adoption was rapid, making them the most widely applied insecticide today. When absorbed by plants, their poison manifests itself in pollen and nectar, which is then consumed by bees that consequently meet their death. But this is no instantaneous euthanasia. The poison fuses to the bees’ nerve cells, leaving the insects uncontrollably shaking and twitching before they go into paralysis and die. By then, they might have brought the toxin back to their hives, sharing it with their colony to effectively cause mass mortality.
Biologists have found more than 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen – a deadly ”pesticide cocktail”, as University of California apiculturist Eric Mussen puts it.
Green policies to ensure crop biodiversity
The recent Swedish campaign Hela Sverige blommar (All of Sweden is in Bloom) ensured that the equivalent of 1,000 soccer fields blossomed in time for Midsummer. Countrywide, 700 farmers contributed by sowing pollinator-friendly forage in field edges and fallow soil; buckwheat, clover, sunflowers, borage, and other pollen- and nectar-rich species that attract both bees and insects, providing food for birds to boot. These flowering zones also protect field game, deer, and other critters.
Hela Sverige blommar was sparked by the EU’s “green direct payment” policy that compensates farmers who adopt or maintain practices that help meet environmental and climate goals. “Greening”, as it’s also known, mandates crop diversification and upkeep of permanent grasslands that sequester carbon and protect biodiversity; it also dictates that 5% of arable land be left untouched to sustain biodiversity and habitats. The idea was to support the pollinators and create some beauty – instead of leaving those land patches unkempt?
This past spring, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences started researching 19 of the participating farms, quickly recognizing that the planted zones do indeed attract far more pollinators than those left to grow wild.
Over millions of years, the Earth gave us a truly astonishing number of living species. For most of human history, we have made use of this biodiversity and even added to it. Since the Industrial Age, however, we resorted to assaulting it, endangering the Earth’s wildlife and vegetation, and, in some cases, even driving them to extinction. In the last century, we have stepped up our offensive against nature, threatening entire ecosystems and our planet’s biosphere. According to numerous experts, the main brute in this one-sided fight is our modern food system. The way we produce, distribute, and consume food has become a savage destroyer, transforming landscapes and plundering natural resources so that we can choose what we wish to eat.
In total, up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, because of expanding monocultures and other human interventions – a quantity and a pace exceeding the mass extinction that occurred during the Triassic and Jurassic periods 200 million years ago. Without drastic action to conserve habitats, the rate of species extinction will only increase, concludes a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
But wild animals are not the only ones threatened with extinction. As of 2016, 9% of all domesticated breeds used for food and agriculture have vanished, with at least 1,000 more in jeopardy.
Food production depletes freshwater resources and, because agriculture relies heavily on chemicals, it contributes to the acidification and contamination of waterways and marine habitats. In turn, this threatens the dynamics of ecosystems and the species within them.
Based on the practice of growing a single crop, intensive agriculture endangers biodiversity in both the plant and animal kingdoms. Three crops – wheat, corn, and rice – account for more than half of the world’s caloric intake, and a large portion of them goes to animal feed. As fewer kinds of these crops are grown in increasingly similar cultivation systems, industrial monoculture will further reduce genetic variation. Meanwhile, other grains, fruits, and vegetables are being phased out or outright lost, adding to impaired resiliency.
Through its contribution to climate change, the food system becomes an indirect driver of biodiversity loss. Climate change alters the suitability of habitats, causing sensitive species to die out or move elsewhere. In some cases, other species move in to occupy the territory left behind. These alterations compromise the overall resilience of the ecosystem in question.
Key figures from the IPBES report include:
More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now dedicated to crop or livestock production.
Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, and up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss.
In 2015, 93% of marine fish stocks were either fully fished or overfished and only 7% were harvested at sustainable levels.