Checkmate the bees: intensive agriculture kills pollinators in Europe

Four tons of honey in the trash. It's the amount that Sebastian Seusing, a former German beekeeper, had to throw away in 2020 after finding high concentrations of the herbicide glyphosate in his production. Seusing had taken every possible precaution to be able to certify his honey as organic, but to no avail. The episode led him to quit beekeeping and report the farmer who suspected he had sprayed the chemical that ended up in his honey.

Seusing is not alone in suffering from something that worries beekeepers and scientists alike: the effects of intensifying agriculture in Europe go far beyond the sprayed fields and not even the supposedly most controlled corners escape them.

In France, François Le Dudal lost 80% of his bees in 2018 and blames the pesticides used by his neighbors. In Spain, Rafael Cerdá, a transhumant beekeeper, has seen the mortality rate of his bees increase drastically in recent decades. Something that Europe is going to try to solve now with a new regulation recently presented to reduce the use of pesticides in the continent by 50%.

Because this intensification of agricultural production has not been the result of chance or the market. It has been directly promoted by the European Union for the last six decades. With the effects of the Second World War still suffocating the population of the continent, the then European Economic Community launched the Common Agricultural Policy, the CAP, in 1962 with the aim of ensuring the supply of food in Europe at an affordable price and provide economic security for farmers to continue farming.

"We are talking about a situation of great uncertainty, great hunger. The objective was to produce a lot and cheaply," explains Noa Simon, scientific director of Beelife, an NGO that works for the preservation of bees and other pollinators. "That has led to a super-intensive production system for more than 50 years," she continues. The subsidy scheme rewarded more the more that was produced. Starting in the 1990s, overproduction led to the number of hectares prevailing as the main factor for receiving aid. And so it has remained until today.

The impact that this policy has had on the countryside has been clear: increasingly uniform and industrialized farms. "The CAP has led to the simplification and consolidation of the landscape, to drastic increases in the use of pesticides and the frequency of tillage, to the expansion of irrigation and the destruction of pastures," 2,500 scientists assured in a letter sent in November 2019 to the European Parliament calling for urgent measures to reduce the impact of intensive farming practices in Europe.

The data shows this trend: farms in Europe have gone from an average of 11.8 hectares in 2005 to 16.6 in 2016, more than 40%. And although most of the farms are family farms, they do not stop disappearing. Between 2005 and 2016, there were 4.1 million fewer farms in Europe, about 30%, most of them less than 5 hectares.

In the Spanish case, the number of farms has been reduced by 12.5% ​​between 2005 and 2016, but those with more than 100 hectares increased by almost 5%. The latter accounted for 5.4% of the total in 2013, but accounted for 55.5% of the total cultivated area, almost 13 million hectares, about 250 hectares on average, according to a report by the Transnational Institute.

This process of expansion and intensification has been experienced above all in the most productive plots, which have been dedicated to irrigated crops in Levante, the two Castillas, Aragón and Andalusia, according to a study published in the Bibliographical Magazine of Geography and Social Sciences .

Another key to the model has been the intensive use of agrochemicals. There are currently almost 500 active ingredients for pesticides authorized in the European Union, of which 86 are insecticides. And although Europe has managed to contain the use of agrochemicals, it has not been able to with insecticides: its sales increased by more than 64% between 2013 and 2020.

These substances especially affect pollinators, a key element in the food chain. And not only from wild ecosystems. Also from the fields that feed us. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 75% of food crops depend, at least in part, on pollinators.

"The problem is not just bees. The problem is wild pollinators. They are disappearing without anyone noticing," says Johann Lütke Schwienhorst, a farmer by training, an amateur beekeeper in Germany and an advisor to the environmental foundation Aurelia Stiftung.

"The unequivocal consensus is that these activities [agrícolas] together they have led to a decline in European rural bird populations of more than 55% between 1980 and 2015, and a decline in insect abundance of more than 76% in a study of 63 nature reserves in Germany between 1989 and 2016 ", assured the letter sent by scientists to the European Parliament.

Another study by the Institute for European Environmental Policy on pollinators agreed: "The main environmental threat to the diversity and abundance of pollinators in Europe is associated with intensive modern agriculture and the loss of extensive natural pastures, fallow areas with herbaceous vegetation , cover and forage crops and field margins with diverse floral vegetation".

The key to a healthy diet is variety. Not just for the human species. Even for pollinators, feeding on a single plant increases their susceptibility to insecticides. And yet they have an increasingly monotonous offering on the menu. Thus, the CAP has not only promoted the concentration of land; it has also given "priority to plants without flowering or with limited flowering", explains Lütke Schwienhorst.

Rafael Cerdá has seen it with his own eyes throughout his life as a beekeeper. Coming from a family that has produced honey since the 19th century in Ayora (Valencia), he looks with despair at the high mortality rate of his bees. "Globalization means that agricultural products are becoming more and more profitable."

This transhumant beekeeper criticizes that "these crops are made to produce a lot, that they are fast and late to get the most out of it. So the flowering seasons are usually shorter," he explains. And the shorter the blooms, the more the hives have to transhume to be able to get honey.

But it is not the only problem. A third of Europe's arable land is cultivated with cereals, mainly wheat, barley and maize, crops that are not part of the diet of most pollinators, especially honey producers such as bees. Crops that are not always destined for direct human consumption: in fact, according to Greenpeace, 62% of these cereals are destined for the production of feed.

This monotonous diet is often seasoned in a poisonous way: sprayed with pesticides capable of putting the ponilizers in check and affecting their nervous system and their social interaction skills.

Among them, neonicotinoids have a particularly bad reputation, especially after three of them, clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, were banned in 2018. "It is a big problem that the toxicity of pesticides is evaluated only based on the mortality rate they cause. In practice the damage they cause is much greater than simply killing insects," explains Randolf Menzel, emeritus professor of neurobiology at the Free University of Berlin. "But we can stop these misuses. DDT has been stopped. Cycloheximide has been stopped. Now we have to do the same thing with neonicotinoids."

However, these neonicotinoids have not been completely eradicated. They can still be used with 'emergency authorizations' for use in fields, especially sugar beet, and in most cases have been replaced by sulfoximine, a pesticide very similar to neonicotinoids.

Even so, even if the most toxic compounds are banned, pollinators are not safe from the cocktail effect of other less aggressive pesticides. "In the past, it was possible that they were fumigated more strongly, with products that were more harmful to the bees. Little have we gone on to use less aggressive products, which perhaps kill a lower percentage of bees, or do not affect them as much, but do affect them. And they are fumigated more", explains beekeeper Rafael Cerdá.

"In the authorization of pesticides, the cocktail effect is not taken into account," explains Noa Simón, from Bee-Life. "A pesticide is authorized for a crop. But it doesn't take into account the context of the crops or what other pesticides may be spraying nearby," she continues.

In this context, beekeepers are often unable to prove that pesticides are responsible for the mortality of their hives. "When bees are perfectly healthy, they are able to fight against viruses and aggressions, except for varroa. However, when they are contaminated with several molecules, even with a small dose, the cocktail effect weakens the entire colony, which then has a poor immune system and is vulnerable to all kinds of aggression. But this is difficult to prove," explains French beekeeper François Le Dudal.

For this reason, Le Dudal and several beekeepers in the Brittany region have set up an independent surveillance system that carries out toxicological analyzes that the authorities often refuse to do. In recent years, says Le Dudal, they have found all kinds of toxins in honey, wax or pollen. Seusing, for his part, has just won the case against his neighbor and the farmer will have to pay him for the damage caused to his hives.

In Spain, we are still far from the agricultural industrialization of northern Europe, says Mariano Higes, a researcher specializing in bee pathologies at the Marchamalo Beekeeping and Agro-environmental Research Center. The main enemy of hives is varroa – a mite that attacks insects. "The problem in beekeeping is not only neonicotinoids. They are one of the problems. Another is fungicides, herbicides, acaricides... And another is pathogens, which also go beyond Varroa destructor," says Mariano Higes.

"The effect that the CAP measures have as a whole is that direct aid that encourages intensification continues to prevail. The others that we could call compensatory or environmental are in the minority, so they do not fully compensate for the effects caused by the other measures," explains Elena Concepción, post-doctoral researcher specializing in biodiversity at the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC).

This cocktail has proven so deadly that many farmers now have to turn to beekeepers to pollinate their fields. Rafael Cerdá himself often moves his bees not to look for the best flowers, but because they pay him to take his hives to certain plots during the flowering season. "There are a lot of crops, vegetables and fruit trees, where they pay us to bring the bees only to pollinate," he says.

Cerdá mentions a long list of crops to which he takes his hives. Watermelons and courgettes from greenhouses in Almería. Strawberries from the greenhouses of Huelva. Also in open fields of plums, apricots, peaches or nectarines. And, of course, the almonds, which produce between 20 and 25% more if they have been pollinated by bees, says Cerdá proudly.

It is a cocktail that, however, calls for catastrophe. One of green deserts that, from wanting to produce more food, are finding it increasingly difficult to do so.

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