Pollinators are essential to our ecosystem; thus, a drastic decline in them would hurt not just nature around us but also humans. With that in mind, lawmakers around the globe have been worried about the effect of human behaviour on the sustainability of bee colonies. Environmentalists have been adamant that “bee-killing pesticides” are to blame, and not just in recent years: their claims that the chemicals we use to protect from crop losses and plant diseases are responsible for bee colony collapses.
However, the numbers don’t bear that out. Since the introduction of neonicotinoid insecticides – the pesticides blamed for bee death – in the mid-90s, bee populations have not collapsed. The data show that as of 2020, there has been an increase of beehives by 17% since 2010, 35% since 2000, and 90% since 1961. In the United States, the number of bee colonies has been stable for 30 years, while in Europe, where farmers also use these insecticides, the number has increased by 20%.
Local or regional reductions in managed bees can occur because bee-keepers adapt their stock in terms of the market demand. As honey prices are currently on the rise, it is likely that in many areas, bee-keepers will increase their supply to benefit from higher prices. As for wild bees, not just are they hard to count (because, as the name suggests, they are wild), but existing research predicting catastrophic decline has been debunked in the past.
That does not mean that there are no threats to pollinators or that modern farming does not have an impact on them. In fact, climate change has affected the warming-tracking of bumble bees and led them to seek higher elevation. Added to that, solitary bees are affected by the impact of habitat loss caused by the rapid expansion of agriculture over the last centuries. That said, we need to put the habitat issue into context: research published on May 30 shows how comparative models point to peak agricultural land use already having been reached. This means that despite a growing population, humanity is unlikely to increase its need for land for farming purposes any longer. Even though that is the case, food production continues to grow because modern farming techniques allow us to create more yield with the same or even less land.
On the one hand, the reason for this shift lies in the fact that developing nations have increasing access to modern farming equipment and crop protection tools. Where previously farmers needed a lot of labour to hand-weed, machines are able to cover the entire field in a fraction of the time, and fungicides assure that the food is safe for human consumption. On the other hand, innovations in the developed world have also modernised the way we make, consume, and deliver food. Improved supply chains guarantee that we don’t need a farm in every small rural area anymore, and modern genetic engineering has made our crops more resilient and efficient. Yet even before that, the use of crop protection chemicals has ensured that farmers don’t lose a significant share of their crops each year.
However, with the development of modern agricultural practices came its opponents. Environmental activists have contested the legitimacy of the use of pesticides and instead advocated for organic farming. Not just does this undermine the trust in the regulatory bodies that oversee the safety of the products, but it also misses two key factors: organic farming, contrary to popular belief, does use a long list of pesticides, and a shift to all-organic would increase the need for farmland. A study by the University of Melbourne found that organic farming yields 43-72 percent less than traditional farming and that it requires 130 per cent more farmland to yield the same output.
Defenders of modern agriculture should vehemently push back against the notion that today’s food model undermines bee health or human health, for that matter. In fact, the solutions of environmental activists are so counter-productive to their own stated aims that we can safely say to them: we’re on your side, but you’re not.