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Pollinators, pesticides, and paths forward for community engagement and restoration

28 September 2022

Without pollinators, our ecosystem and food system will collapse
Pollinators affect 35% of the world’s food production, which includes 87% of the leading crops.  The food system relies on pollinators, without them we will not have food security or diversity that is required.
But their populations are in decline
To highlight the importance of pollinators services and the role they play in a sustainable food system, the Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) project co-founded the Asian Pollinator Initiatives Alliance (APIA) along with Go Organics Peace International, Earth Net Foundation, Biothai, and Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia. Formed in 2020, the aim of the network is to raise awareness on the importance of pollinators to the environment and economy, while creating intervention actions for change.

“Pollinators, pesticides, and paths forward for community engagement and restoration” was the latest event hosted by APIA at Biothai’s Growth Diversity Park in Nonthaburi Province, just outside Bangkok. It was APIA’s first in person even since the pandemic started and provided opportunities for learning and workshops not achievable through the online webinars we hosted previously. 
In the morning session of the event, researchers from leading universities presented their findings to the attendees. The findings of these researches support the link between a sustainable food system and pollinator conservation
Afternoon session included talks and workshops from civilians who are experiences in their own on topics including urban beekeeping, organic agriculture and stingless beekeeping, and honey collection.
Sustainable production, and pollinator conservation goes hand in hand. The link can be seen in research by Assistant Professor Dr. Alyssa Stewart from Mahidol University, which compared pollinator diversity in organic vs chemical guava farm. While pollinators are still present in chemical guava farms, in organic farms the pollinator diversity is higher. Dr Alyssa’s research also points to the connection between high crop diversity and pollinator diversity.
Pesticides however are directly contributing to decline in pollinator populations along with loss of habitat as stated by Dr. Alyssa in her presentation. This is supported by Dr. Orawan Duangphakdee’s, Associate Professor and the Director of Native Honeybee and Pollinator Center at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi and founder of the Beesac Model brand of honey, research. The study covered issues surrounding the use of pesticides by neighbouring farms to organic bee keeping farms.
There needs to be an increase in communication of knowledge to farmers on the impacts of use of pesticides, especially for use when stingless bees are out pollinating. Communication can be supplemented by an increase in local research. Local research is important because the value pollinators provide through their pollinating services is enormous. True value of bees comes from this and not honey and other bee products. The value from food produced due to pollination service is equal 6,579,000 million baht, showing the importance pollinators have to our food system. Without bees we don’t have food. This service is however being threatened due to the decline in populations.
These findings show the importance of sustainable production to pollinator diversity and maintaining populations. A transition away from chemical intensive industrial towards more diverse sustainable production methods which do not harm pollinator habitats nor use agrochemicals are needed.
While organic agriculture will help conserve pollinator population and diversity, due to current issues in the food system, the transition is not possible for every farmer. This can be seen in the experiences of Mr. Manrat Thitithanakul (Khun Jack) a beekeeping organic farmer and head villager from Ban Kha District, Ratchaburi Province.
Khun Jack’s father passed away due long-term use of agrochemicals. This caused him to become very anti agrochemicals, and stopped using them with everything on his plot. However, the crops did not survive on its own. For 5 years nothing worked. He travelled around the country looking for knowledge but nothing helped. Luckily, he read an article featuring Dr. Orawan so he contacted her and joined a training workshop in 2019. With Dr. Orawan help he planted guava, a source of food for stingless bees, and introduced the bees to his plot. Now with the stingless bees pollinating his guava, the crops are flourishing. Khun Jack still does not use agrochemicals. Evidently, just as bees need organic agriculture to survive, organic agriculture needs bees.
With Khun Jack’s help, 80% of his village are now raising stingless bees on their organic plots. Introducing his villagers to stingless bees helped changed their mind set. What used to be an issue with weeds is now a source of income. If the stingless bees pollinate them, they get honey in return.
Despite the success, Khun Jack has been receiving low prices for his guava due to the the imperfections in his produce, as well as due to the lack of organic market places in the area. This is also the case for the other villagers. But supported by Beesac Model, they are able to supplement the reduction in income from produce with income from bee products.
Never the less this will not be the case for all farmers. If they do not use agrochemicals, their crops either will not survive or will receive too low of a price in the market. The struggle causes many farmers to revert back to agrochemicals. The problem still remains. In the current food system produce with imperfections are sold for less in the market or thrown away. As long as consumers create a demand for perfect produce and there is a lack of organic market places who pay a fair price, many farmers will not be able to make the transition like Khun Jack and his villagers. 
This system not only encourages the use of dangerous agrochemicals, but also leads to high amounts of food waste where perfectly edible foods are discarded because they cannot be sold to the market. There needs to be a change in the food system which encourages the transition away from agrochemicals towards organic agriculture with beekeeping, as well as increases in market places to support these products.
If farmers are to make the shift to organic agriculture that helps conserve pollinator populations, Khun Jack’s experiences shows the need for support from not only the government but also consumers and businesses. If there is an increase in demand for organic produce, market places will follow.
Other than creating a demand for organic produce, urban beekeeping and farming are also consumer actions that can directly contribute to pollinator conservation. Ms. Pavida Kritasaran (Khun Kun) is an urban beekeeper who is beekeeping in her 23rd floor condo in Bangkok. While initially this may seem impossible, stingless bees are easy to maintain and keep. As long as there are food sources around and the hive/box is away from harsh sunlight and rain, they will survive. To achieve this, Khun Kun has planted several herbs and food crops on her balcony, as well as on the community garden the building which acts as food source for the bees. Around her building are also food crops. Due to the abundance of food, the stingless bee hive is thriving, despite being on a balcony of a 23rd floor condo building.
As shown by Khun Kun’s experiences, urban farming can play a vital role in maintaining bee populations, especially in many big cities where buildings are replacing green spaces at a fast pace. Having more green places and diverse crops around is another benefit that improves quality of life for those living in the city.
When it comes to issues in the food system, specifically market places, similarities can also be found between honey and vegetables.
Mr Werawit Intaraparyong (Khun Benz) is a swim teacher turned honey collector/seller who has collected over 120 types of honey. He likens the diversity in types of honey to the diversity in vegetables. Honey we often find in the shops are industrial honey. While this isn’t bad, it does not represent the whole diverse spread of honey that is out there. Due to the industrialised honey production, many people only know of a few types of honey. This is the same case with vegetables. The industrial food system means consumers only know of a certain number of vegetables when there are much more out there we can consume.
During the event he hosted a honey tasting workshop to showcase the diversity in types of honey there is out there. Honey actually has 4 dimensions, sweet, bitter, sour, and flagrant. With industrial honey we only get sweet and fragrant. This is all we know because it’s all we are exposed to. Like with food it is important to accept than try the wide array of honey that is out there a move way from just industrialised option. A change in the food system where more types of crops are accepted in the market will increase crop diversity helping maintain pollinator populations
Without change pollinator populations will continue to decline. To effectively save pollinators, producers, consumers, and businesses must learn and make a shift towards a better more sustainable production.
If we help pollinators, they will also help us.  It is a two-way relationship. Organic agriculture can help conserve bee populations, and bee pollination services can help organic farms perform better. Research suggests that higher crop diversity helps maintain pollinator diversity, at the same time, without pollination services however there cannot be crop diversity.
It’s not just for the bees, we need them to survive. The food system relies on pollinators.
Media Contact
Abhinand Aryapratheep