The decline of pollinators has been receiving increasing attention in recent years. In conjunction with an overall increase in concern over the state of the environment, the decline of bees and other pollinators is the subject of escalating amounts of TV airtime, books, documentaries, and public discourse. Pollinator decline has become somewhat of a symbol for the wider ecological crisis, such as the cover of David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, adorned with the image of a dead bumblebee.
Pollinators provide an essential ‘ecosystem service’, both for wild plants and for the crops we grow. Owing to their immobility, animal-pollinated plants entrust their pollen to animal pollinators. These animals act as vectors, transporting pollen from one plant to the stigma of another, resulting in fertilisation and reproduction of the plant. The pollinators are often rewarded in the form of floral resources, mainly by consuming some of the pollen (a source of protein) or consuming nectar produced by the flower (a source of carbohydrates and amino acids). These floral resources are extremely important for pollinators, being required for healthy nest establishment, growth, reproduction, and more. As we will see, the decline of wildflowers and their floral resources has been a major driver of pollinator decline.
The extinction of bees and other pollinators has concerned scientists due to their importance, not only ecologically but in terms of our direct reliance on them. An estimated 88% of flowering plants are animal pollinated , and 35% of global crop production relies at least in part on pollinators .
Although bees are the group most people think about when discussing pollination, pollinators encompass a wide range of animals such as butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and other insects. Elsewhere in the world they even include birds, bats, and lizards.
Quantifying the extent of pollinator decline is difficult due to inadequate monitoring and patchy data between countries and regions, but a growing body of work is slowly revealing the scale of the crisis. For example, a 2006 study found that the number of bee species recorded at study sites in Britain and the Netherlands had declined by 52% and 67% respectively in sites surveyed before and after 1980 , and a long-term study in Germany recorded a 76% decline in insect biomass between 1989 and 2016 . At the global level, in a recent review of global records from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which collects specimen records from a wide range of sources, researchers reported that the number of bee species observed declined by a quarter in 2006-2015 compared to before 1990 .
Since the 19th century, Britain has lost two of 26 species of bumblebee: the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) and Cullum’s bumblebee (Bombus cullumanus), and other bumblebee species have undergone reductions in numbers and range contractions. Organisations set up to monitor pollinator distributions in Britain such as the Hoverfly Monitoring Scheme (HRS), UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, and the Bees, Ants and Wasps Recording Society (BWARS) have recorded dozens of extinctions of British pollinators including bees, wasps, moths, and butterflies .
Industrial agriculture is widely believed to be one of the main drivers of pollinator decline. Today, agriculture in Britain and around the world is characterised by high external inputs such as artificial fertiliser and pesticides, simple crop rotations, mechanisation, large fields, and low biodiversity. Since 1945 the expansion of mechanisation has caused labour to decline by 77% and hedgerows to decline by 50% (an important landscape feature for wildlife) . These characteristics of industrial agriculture facilitate the production of as much as possible as quickly as possible, necessitated by market competition. This model of agriculture creates many stressors for pollinators, such as destruction or erosion of habitat, declines in food sources, exposure to harmful pesticides, and increased transmission of diseases.
As with most popular subjects, most of the narrative is dominated by liberal points of view. The causes and solutions presented in popular media are often along the lines of consumer choices. Individual farmers are presented as having personally neglected the health of pollinator communities, and citizens are encouraged to manage their gardens or allotments to encourage more pollinator-friendly flowers. Although individual lifestyle choices are important, it is the underlying economic system which ultimately determines how land and labour are used. Capitalism, where short-term profit takes precedent over any other social or environmental consideration, has determined the historical development of agriculture, and determines how we produce our food today.
What is rational according to the economic logic of capitalism is by no means rational for people or the environment. Agricultural corporations continue to monopolise food production and make super-profits while working class people go hungry, family farmers are displaced from their land, and the environment is ravaged globally.
Marx recognised the irrationality of capitalist agriculture in the third volume of Capital: “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture) and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers.” Therefore, to understand what is driving pollinator decline it is essential to understand how capitalism drives and shapes agriculture.
Agriculture is an industry where monopoly capital is aggressively extending and entrenching its control. However, to understand the nature of capitalist agriculture we need to view agriculture not simply as the activities which occur on the farm, but also as everything which occurs upstream of the farm; production of chemicals, machinery, and seeds, and what occurs downstream; processing, packaging, retail etc. The farming itself is extremely risky, with high amounts of upfront costs and high risks of crop failure or low prices. For this reason, capital tends to flow into these upstream and downstream sectors of the food production process. Upstream, corporations now control huge amounts of chemical input markets, machinery, and seed markets. Downstream, there has been monopolisation of processing, packaging, and retail . Today, global food production is dominated by a small number of colossal corporations. The worlds four largest fertiliser companies control over half of production, the largest three seed producers’ control over 60 percent of the market for commercial seeds and agricultural chemicals such as pesticides. Similar levels of monopolisation occur in food processing and technology . The risk has been outsourced onto the farmers who must provide the land and labour and are often locked into unfavourable contracts. The reluctance of capital to invest in the farming itself explains why small and family farmers are surprisingly resilient around the world. Despite land grabs and rural dispossession continuing to generate hunger for the world’s small farmers, 35% of the world’s food is still produced on farms less than two hectares in size, despite only making up 12% of all agricultural land.
The resources and processes which were once present on the farm are now produced and sold to the farmers by agribusiness. The pest control once provided by parasites and predators are now provided by pesticides produced by Syngenta. The nutrients for the soil are no longer provided through carefully planned crop rotations and cover crops but provided by Mosaic in the form of chemical fertiliser. Seeds which were once produced on the farm are now produced and sold by Monsanto. The energy once provided by animals and manual labour are now provided by the diesel and petrol which power the agricultural machinery. Here we see how capital has commercialised and monopolised the resources and processes required for food production.
The on-farm practices demanded by the need to produce short-term profit is also self-reinforcing. Simplification of crop rotations, allowing the farmer to specialise in a few crops, increases risk of pests, weeds, and diseases, requiring greater pesticide and herbicide use. Simple crop rotations also cause soil erosion, requiring high input of fertilisers. Prices driven down by overproduction requires the cultivation of greater and greater areas, reducing the farmers familiarity with their land. Larger areas make other technology or practices that simplify the production process further, such as genetically modified crops, more attractive for the farmer. The irrationality of capitalist economic relations lock farmers into a treadmill of increasingly intensive and industrial forms of farming to stay afloat .
Although huge increases in productivity have occurred over the past few centuries, capitalism continues to generate poverty and hunger. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in 2019 690 million people in the world were undernourished, or approximately 8.9% of the world’s population . This is an increase of 10 million within one year and 60 million in 5 years, despite the world producing enough food to feed 10 billion people annually .
It is wrong to assume that the industrial model is inherently more productive than organic and alternative methods of farming, as claimed by the PR of agribusiness. Recently a strong body of evidence has emerged showing that organic and alternative forms of agriculture are just as productive as conventual industrial methods , contrary to common dismissals of alternative methods as unproductive. Some may claim that the industrial model is efficient, however this ignores the costs associated with industrial methods which are externalised under capitalism and are subsidised by the public. This includes environmental damage, the huge amounts of water and fuel required, and high public subsidies needed to keep farmers in business due to low prices arising from overproduction.
This model of industrial agriculture was exported around the world following World War 2 through the so-called ‘Green Revolution’. This was a major set of research and policy initiatives promoted primarily by governments, NGO’s, and agribusiness, pushing developing countries to adopt industrial practices as a supposed solution to their hunger problems. The Green Revolution attempted to depoliticise the issue of hunger and reframe the discussion on mainly technological lines (the “green” part of the name is itself attempting to be an alternative to “red” solutions which advocated land reform). Advocates of the Green Revolution often reference the 11% increase in per capita food production and 16% drop in hungry people between 1970 and 1990, the decades where the Green Revolution was pushed hardest. However, a closer look at these figures reveals that almost all hunger reduction was within China, the result of deliberate state investment and intervention. Remove China’s achievements, and between 1970 and 1990 world hunger increased by 11%. For example, in South America food production per capita increased by 8%, but hunger increased by 19% . Today, capitalists are looking to Africa for another Green Revolution, having already largely commercialised the agriculture of Asia and South America.
Despite what defenders of the status quo claim, hunger is not simply a matter of technology and yields. Those who depoliticise hunger often rely on tiresome ‘trickle down’ logic that has failed to provide for people for decades: if we produce more that will find its way to the worlds hungry. Hunger is driven primarily by land and wealth being concentrated in a tiny number of hands. People rely on foodbanks due to unemployment, low wages, high rents, and lack of social support. In the global south, the best land is monopolised by local elites who use it to grow export crops for the markets of richer countries with greater purchasing power. The rural population are driven to hunger by lack of access to quality land, debt, low wages, high rents, confiscatory taxes, and minimal technical advice and support.
Industrial agriculture did not solve Britain or the worlds hunger, but instead allowed agricultural monopolies to expand and consolidate their power over the global food system, making a killing in the process.
Decline of food and other resources for pollinators
The industrialisation of agriculture described above is generally considered one of the main causes of pollinator decline in Britain and around the world. One of the major ways industrial agriculture has impacted pollinators is by expanding cultivated land at the expense of habitats important for pollinators. These include hedgerows and hay-meadows, which contain abundant and diverse flowers able to provide pollinators with the food they need to survive. Changes in agricultural practices themselves have also contributed to reducing food sources for insects. For example, once complex crop rotations, which may have used flowering soil-improving plants like clover, have lost out to simpler rotations permitted by a high reliance on artificial fertiliser. These factors contribute not only to a reduction in the abundance of food sources for pollinators, but also reduce the diversity of food sources, leading to more monotonous diets which can have impacts on pollinator health . Habitats which are under threat may also contain nest sites which pollinators also need, such as underground cavities, hollow twigs, or even abandoned snail shells.
By surveying the flowers present on farms and estimating the volume of nectar produced, researchers at Bristol University were able to examine whether farmland nectar supply was sufficient to supply the estimated nectar demand of three common bumblebee species . The authors found that during July and August, the period where most insects are active In Britain, farms did not contain enough nectar-producing flowers to meet their food demand. This is a period of summer which would have previously been supplied by wildflower meadows. However, flower-rich wildflower meadows have been a major casualty of agricultural expansion, with the UK losing 97% of this habitat since World War 2 .
Changes in the rate of extinction of pollinators can give scientists insights into which developments in agriculture have contributed to declines. Researchers at the University of Northampton looked at historical changes in the extinction rate of bees in relation to major changes in agriculture. An increase in extinctions in the 19th century coincided with increased imports of guano, a nutrient rich fertiliser composed of accumulated bird, bat, and seal excrement. Use of this fertiliser increased the productivity of grasslands, reducing the abundance and diversity of flowers by allowing grasses to dominate. Use of guano would have also reduced the need to rely on rotational cropping, which would have used soil-improving flowering plants. This was further exacerbated by the development of the Haber-Bosch process in the early 20th century, which allowed the manufacture of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser . These changes would have caused major reductions in the abundance and diversity of flowers available to pollinators in agricultural landscapes.
Pesticides are probably the most controversial and well-known driver of pollinator decline. As mentioned above, the expansion of use of pesticides over the 20th century and its impact on wildlife has been the centre of much debate and activism, most notably Rachel Carlson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids are a recent addition to farming and are strongly implicated as drivers of bee decline. Seeds are treated with these pesticides, which subsequently spread through the plant into the pollen and nectar. They are also water soluble and can spread via soil into nearby wildflowers. Neonicotinoids, being neurotoxins, can cause death, paralysis, reduced foraging efficiency, and reduced navigation and learning ability .
It is often thought that pesticide use is essential for productive agriculture. However, the use of pesticides and the extent to which production depends on their application depends on factors such as the crops grown, their succession, and the complexity of the farmed landscape. Practices which involve a small number of cultivated plants, monocultures, simple rotations, and low areas of natural habitats (which can act as sources of organisms which can naturally supress crop pests) are perfect conditions for pests to survive and reproduce. This model of agriculture locks farmers into a dependence on chemical pesticides, eventually requiring greater and greater quantities as pests become resistant (known as the ‘pesticide treadmill’).
Diseases and parasites
Other stressors such as parasites and diseases further contribute to pollinator decline. Transportation of honeybee colonies long distances for crop pollination can spread parasites such as the Varroa mite. This parasite can act as a vector for diseases such as Deformed Wing Virus (DFV), which causes deformities of honeybee wings and abdomens, and has been a major contributor to the decline of honeybees in Europe and North America. The trade of commercial bumblebee colonies for pollination of greenhouse crops such as tomatoes can also contribute to the spread of diseases around the world. These diseases and parasites imported by commercial bees can have devastating impacts on wild bee populations .
A deadly cocktail
These stressors: reduction in food sources, pesticide exposure, and spread of diseases and parasites, can interact and have a greater impact on pollinators than if they were exposed to a single stressor. For example, exposure to noenicitinoids during development can increase susceptibility to diseases and parasites. Other parasites become more dangerous when their pollinator hosts are under-nourished, which becomes increasingly likely as flowers decline in agricultural areas .
The future of pollinators
Here we see how the intensification of agriculture has driven pollinator decline. Britain was the focus in this article, but this process is continuing around the world as farming continues to be commercialised and intensified. There are even moves by agribusiness to commercialise the process of pollination itself. Much like the other parts of food production in which monopoly capital has entrenched itself, in recent years there has been moves by corporations to provide “technology-based solutions” to pollinator decline. These “technological solutions” do not address the systemic causes of the crisis, but rather only offer new avenues for profit by the very corporations creating this crisis, kicking the can further down the road.
A widely known and dystopian thought is the development of “robobees”, robotic drones which would supposedly do the pollinating in the absence of actual pollinators. Incredibly, Walmart has patented this technology. Many ecologists have rightly pointed out that this will be a failure, with current technology being no replacement for plant-pollinator interactions which have evolved over millions of years. However, the fact that this idea is being seriously suggested perfectly illustrates the logic of capitalism; any technological (and commodifiable) solutions are suggested, no matter how ludicrous, if it does not require any fundamental changes to business as usual.
A more serious (and feasible) development which has received attention in recent years are genetically modified bees which are resistant to pesticides. Discussion exploded following the highly publicised colony collapse disorder (CCD) which occurred in the late 2000’s, where honeybee workers would abandon the nest and leave the queen with its larvae. Studies discovered that the primary cause of this strange phenomenon was neonicotinoid pesticides interfering with the ability of workers to locate their nests. The possibility of a modified pesticide resistant bee has caused concern among activists and scientists. Not only does this not tackle the root of pollinator decline, but it may be another route for agricultural corporations to commercialise the process of pollination through patents.
Pollination is one of the few processes left which is collectively managed and not commodified, essentially still part of the commons which anyone can use freely. Although this technology is in its early stages, and such ideas are opposed by beekeepers, scientists, and activists, these developments are just a continuation of the trajectory of industrial farming.
Sustainable agriculture and real solutions
Pollinator decline is a symptom of capitalism. The development of agriculture in its current industrial form was driven by the profits of agribusiness at the expense of the environment and small farmers. The assumption that conventional intensive agriculture is our only option if we want to feed the world is incorrect. Unfortunately, many conservationists make this mistake and erroneously attribute our current crisis to ‘overpopulation’. Alternative sustainable forms of agriculture have been shown to be a viable alternative, not only by benefiting ecosystems but also by contributing to food sovereignty and providing other socio-economic benefits. The success of alternative agriculture has been demonstrated by organisations like La Vía Campesina and by countries such as Cuba.
The capitalist agricultural system is irrational both environmentally and socially. As long as the interests of capital determine the way we produce our food, short-term profits will continue to take precedent over any other social or environmental consideration. Only fundamental changes to our economic system will allow us to produce food in a way which meets the needs of people in an environmentally sustainable way.
Ciaran Harris, is a member of the YCL’s Brighton branch
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