Building capacity related to Multilateral Environmental Agreements in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP MEAs 3)

Farm with Nature, not against it: global seminar on action to protect pollinators from pesticides

Participants at a global seminar on strengthening regulations to protect pollinators from pesticides organized by the European Union-funded, FAO-led ACP MEAs 3 programme identified priorities for action to safeguard vital pollinators such as bees, without whom the world's food production systems would be severely affected.

The priorities for action in five key areas — policymaking, legislation, risk assessment, risk mitigation, and monitoring and incident reporting — aim to ramp up efforts to halt and reverse loss of biodiversity in agriculture, while accelerating the transition towards sustainable agri-food systems.

The two-day event on 23 and 24 February provided a unique platform for regulators, scientists, policymakers and stakeholders from around the world to share experiences on regulatory approaches, best practices and lessons learned to protect pollinators from the adverse effects of pesticides. The outcomes of the seminar are expected to contribute to the implementation of the International Pollinator Initiative that was adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

"A decisive year for Nature" 

Ms Chantal Marijnissen, the Head of the Unit for the Environment and Sustainable Natural Resources in the Directorate-General for International Partnerships at the European Commission, laid out the European Union's priorities when it comes to accelerating the much-needed transition to sustainable food systems.

"As the European Union we are proud supporters of the global effort to promote sustainable food systems, to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and also reduce all forms of pollution," she told participants in her opening remarks.

"We believe that 2022 is going to be a really decisive year for Nature, and we are certainly going to be pushing our hardest to get a successful outcome of the second part of the Fifteenth meeting of the Conference of Parties to the CBD," she continued, adding that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen "has promised that we will double our resources on biodiversity, especially with regards to the most vulnerable countries."

Mr David Cooper, who serves as Deputy Executive Secretary of the CBD Secretariat, called for a transition to agro-ecological approaches such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and disease management based on natural enemies of plant pests. 

"Currently we're in the midst of a vicious cycle, where increased pesticide use threatens agricultural biodiversity, which in turn not only leads to lower pollination levels because of the harm to pollinators and thus lower production, but also to less effective natural pest control, because of the effects on other organisms in the ecosystem and hence to an even greater dependence on pesticides," Mr Cooper said. 

"We need to eliminate or reduce the use of pesticides and antibiotics so that we can turn this cycle into a virtuous one, where we have higher levels of agricultural biodiversity leading to higher pollination and lower pesticide risk, and reducing our dependence on pesticide use," he explained.

The current draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework includes a target that aims to reduce pollution from all sources, including pesticides, by at least two-thirds, to levels that are not harmful to biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and human health, Mr Cooper pointed out. 

"I hope this two-day event will help to distill policy guidance and practical recommendations for policymakers at the national and regional levels, that can support the implementation of the Post-2020 Framework and the achievement of the targets that are finally agreed," he concluded. 

In his opening remarks, Mr Jingyuan Xia, the Director of the FAO Plant Production and Protection Division (NSP), pointed out that almost 90% of the world’s flowering plants are pollinated by insects and other animals, and it is estimated that about one-third of the global food volume produced benefits from animal pollination. 

"At the same time, insect pollinators, in particular, can be adversely affected by use of pesticides. Therefore, protecting pollinators from pesticides needs to be given attention," Mr Xia said. 

Legislation on pesticide use, the circumstances in which pesticides can be applied in the vicinity of beekeeping activities, and broader biodiversity protection measures can directly and indirectly contribute to reducing risks to pollinators, Mr Xia stated. 

A paradigm shift is needed

Among the speakers was Ms Barbara Gemmill-Herren from the Faculty of Sustainable Food Systems at Prescott College in the U.S.A., who suggested that in order for pesticide regulations to work, a paradigm shift is needed in how agricultural landscapes are designed in the first place. 

"If regulation is constantly having to work uphill to contain, constrain, mitigate and counteract detrimental activities, it may fail as often as it succeeds," she said. "But if regulation is moving in sync with a more comprehensive paradigm shift in the agricultural and commercial communities...I believe it has a much higher chance of succeeding."

For example, studies have shown that field size alone has a significant impact on pollinators, with larger fields hosting less plant and animal biodiversity and vice versa. She cited a FAO study of how field size affects pollinators ability to contribute to crop yield. Spanning 344 fields across 11 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, it showed that for fields under 2 hectares, yield gaps could be closed by an average of 24% due to higher flower visitor density.  

"Closing yield gaps by 24% is really substantial," she commented. "Thus policies and guidelines aimed at promoting crop diversity, eliminating pesticides and reducing field size should be encouraged." 

"A wholesale shift from conventional agriculture with its strong dependencies on fossil fuels and agricultural chemicals to one that replaces the inherent structures creating such dependencies is not a simple task," she said.  

This paradigm shift requires institutional innovation and collective decision-making with input from local communities, farmers, and indigenous peoples as well as scientists.

As an example, she noted that: "Agroecology resonates with both indigenous knowledge, local communities and scientific understanding: it emphasises the regulating functions of Nature, requires landscape-level ecosystem design and recognises the complexity of agricultural and social systems." 

She was echoed by Mr Frederic Castell from the Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment at FAO in Rome, who stressed the importance of working at the landscape scale in order to protect pollinators while controlling pests. 

"Pesticide policy can do a lot of good, but it won't solve the problem on its own," he said. "I think that's an important message. We need to transition to more sustainable and diversified agri-food systems... such as agro-ecology."

"Achieving sustainability at the global scale will require more than just technological solutions," he added, calling for collaboration between different stakeholders and sectors to achieve viable and effective policies.

Calling for a holistic approach 

In his closing remarks Mr Baogen Gu, who is the Team Leader of Pest and Pesticide Management of the Plant Production and Protection Division at FAO in Rome, said the seminar "has defined priorities for action that will guide our future work for better protection of pollinators through a holistic approach."

"The event emphasised the importance of legal frameworks to better protect pollinators but at the same time it highlighted the need to place legislation in a broader, more holistic context," Mr Gu said.

The seminar was attended by 400 participants representing a broad group of stakeholders and countries from all regions of the globe.