Supply chains at risk as pollinators die out

Intensive modern agriculture still relies on wild birds, bees and beasts for pollination. But these species — and whole industrial supply chains that depend on them — are at risk, according to a new global survey.

The decline of species that pollinate our world's flowering plants has been making headlines for some time. Falling numbers of bees — perhaps our best-loved creepy crawlies — are the focus of much public attention, and have driven a current push to ban certain agricultural chemicals, like neonicotinoids

Nature and Environment | 06.03.2018

But a vast range of insect species, along with birds, bats and even squirrels, are also key pollinators. Agricultural chemicals and climate change suppress biodiversity, making it increasing difficult for them to survive. This is endangering the crops we rely on as well.

According to a new report, around 75 percent of food crops rely on pollinators, making these critters worth $577 billion (€470 billion) annually. Half that value comes from wild pollinators.

Raising awareness

The report, which included participation from the United Nations Environment Program, Fauna & Flora International, and the University of Cambridge, surveyed eight major companies.

Nature and Environment | 28.02.2018

These included Asda, The Body Shop, Mars, PepsiCo and Jordans — to assess how aware they were of the dependency of their supply chains upon these threatened species.

Rubinkehlenkolibris (Archilochus colubris) Männchen

We rely largely on insects to do the world's pollination work, but hummingbirds, fruit bats and even squirrels do their bit

The report found that less that half of these companies knew which of their raw materials depended on pollinators. There was also a lack of awareness about which crops and regions were at risk.

Yet many of their products would never make it to market without the wild bugs, birds and beasts that play a key role in the lifecycle of crops.

"Pollinator loss would potentially decrease crop production by about 90 percent in at least 12 percent of the leading global crops," said Gemma Cranston, director of natural capital at Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. The study was funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

Despite the loss of pollinators being a significant threat to food security, she went on, "it's a threat that hasn't necessarily been translated yet into corporate supply chains."

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Too dirty to fly!

The first step is for companies to become better-informed.

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"We are increasingly aware of the importance of pollinators for the successful cultivation of many raw materials," Paul Murphy, CEO of the Jordans and Ryvita Company, told DW.

"It is critical that more data and better metrics are developed to enable us to take action in safeguarding these vital crops."

The survey's authors want companies to engage with how the crops they rely on are being produced, and promote more sustainable practices — for example, through certification schemes, like those for fair-trade products. 

"To help fix the problem, you need to engage these large multinationals to recognize there is an issue here," Cranston told DW.  "And to start fixing the problems, it becomes an issue of what's in it for them."

Read more: Big businesses vow to tackle plastics problem

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Cacao is among the crops most at risk as the midges responsible for their pollination disappear

The bottom line

That would be their bottom line. Not only do companies need to anticipate resources becoming scarce, but also potential regulatory changes — for example, restrictions on neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that have been linked to the decline of bees.

Still, the survey found that legal risk was far less of a concern for companies than their public image, which most companies surveyed saw as the biggest threat to their business from the decline of pollinators.

But don't expect a quick turnaround, Cranston said. "We're not going to be able to get Wal-Mart to say this is really important, and everybody starts to change their practice." But awareness can be raised — "because it's not a subject that the corporate sphere is aware of."

Read more: Who controls our food?

Big brand names could play an important role, once they realize how a decline in pollinators could affect their productivity. The hope is that they not only respond to regulation, but actually use their economic weight to help drive it.

The campaign will seek to talk to senior business executives from large companies with supply chains connected to pollinators, Cranston said.

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Nature and Environment

Bees and pesticides

The European Union's food safety watchdog has confirmed that pesticides harm bee populations. Several studies have shown that neonicotinoids affect the brains and bodies of bees and other insects, changing their behavior and reducing their fertility and lifespan.

Nature and Environment

Farmers' little helpers

Bees aren't just producers of delicious honey. As pollinators, they play a crucial role in the world's agricultural systems – allowing us to produce all kinds of other foods. But they're threatened by habitat-loss and exposure to toxic pesticides.

Nature and Environment

A scientific 'breakthrough'

Use of neonicotinoids, some of the most toxic pesticides to bees and other insects, was restricted by the EU in 2013. But now scientists say they have found a solution that will pave the way to a bee-friendly neonicotinoid pesticide.

Nature and Environment

Bee-friendly pesticides

Researchers say they have identified the way that bees fight off harmful toxins. Comparing the effects of two neonicotinoids, they found bees metabolize one of them, thiacloprid, very efficiently. They believe this will help them to develop pesticides that do not harm bee populations.

Nature and Environment

Bee nests harmed

But environmentalists are skeptical. Dave Goulson of the school of life sciences at Sussex University, told DW his research, which looked at bee nests next to raspberry crops, found that thiacloprid harmed the nests. "There is evidence that thiacloprid use does harm bumblebee nests under field conditions," he said.

Nature and Environment


Campaigners like Keith Tyrell, director of Pesticide Action Network UK says we need to move away from a "chemical mindset" altogether.

Nature and Environment

Save the butterflies, too

It’s not just bees that are affected by pesticides, Tyrell says. Insecticides are harmful to many different types of insects. For example, butterfly populations have also been affected. Pesticides can also have an impact on human health and harm other wildlife and the environment, according to Pesticide Action Network UK.

Nature and Environment

A natural approach

We need to find a way to change our agricultural model, and switch to non-chemical pest control methods that work with nature, environmentalists say.

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