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Gardening & Agriculture gardening   agriculture General

A Bee Sting to Conventional Agriculture

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by: Mark Deken
a bee sting to conventional agriculture

How the loss of insect life changed the future of agriculture

The variety of natural life in agricultural areas is declining at an alarming rate. Forty percent of the twenty thousand researched species of bees, butterflies and bumblebees are threatened with extinction. One third of all food crops and the lives of millions of people are at stake because of the disappearance of these small pollinators. This news has led to a ripple effect in the world of food production. How does the loss of insect life influence modern agriculture?

The bee has put biodiversity on the agenda of the decision makers in our world. Five million people signed a petition to save the bees. This was followed by a study conducted by the European Food Safety Authority and eventually led to an EU ban of the three main insecticides used in agriculture. The EU Commissioner stated:  “Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment.”

Monocultural agriculture is very effective, it has many disadvantages

In Europe, the United States and South America, agriculture has, for many decades, meant increasingly large pieces of land used for only one type of crop each year. This type of agriculture is called monocultural agriculture. The farmer’s efforts and assets (land, water, fertilizer, means of pest control) are totally focused on growing that one particular crop. Everything else should step aside, including insects and other life forms. Even though monocultural agriculture is very effective, it has many disadvantages. An important disadvantage in relation to biodiversity loss is that a field, which essentially is a biotope, will be completely destroyed after harvesting. Furthermore, monocultural farming exhausts water supplies, depletes the soil in a high tempo and releases high volumes of green house gasses, since it is heavily dependent on oil for artificial fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation, machines and transport. Last but not least, in conventional agriculture fertilizer, insecticides, pesticides and herbicides leave their chemical traces in the soil, on the produce and in the life forms present in the field.

Biodiversity in agriculture

Plant life, the basis of the world’s food pyramid, starts in the ground. A rich soil offers a diversity of worms, nematodes, mites, ants, beetles, moulds and bacteria. Biodiversity in the soil increases plant productivity and reduces the risks of diseases and pests. For example, plants grow better in soil with worms, because they recycle dead materials, they ventilate the soil and make room for water to run through it to the right places. Agriculture in general but conventional monocultural agriculture even more so destroys this biodiversity with heavy machinery and the use of chemicals. This method erodes the soil and removes  its nutrients. Rich topsoil is being lost at many times the rate at which it is naturally replaced.

In polycultural agriculture, the counter approach to monocultural agriculture, multiple crops are grown on a field. Such a mixed field’s biodiversity will form a natural defense line against pests, diseases, pollution, and climate change. One-crop fields are more vulnerable to diseases and pests. Mixed cultivation will lead to the production of more protective substances. The soil and the life in it will reap more benefits from the excretion of compounds of the separate species of plants in the field. Mixed cultivation also leads to stronger rooting, leafing and water retention systems. During a harvesting period natural enemies to pests such as wasps, mites and spiders can find shelter and survive. Last but not least: on average, probably due to all these mentioned reasons, polycultural farming will lead to higher yields.

The only large disadvantage of polycultural agriculture is the actual harvest, since farm machines have been developed for monocultural use. For harvesting one row at a time one would need smaller machines or robot systems. Such machines and robot systems are already on the market, but they are costly and require a huge investment. In Africa mixed cultivation has already been practiced for many generations. Cocoa and plantain are a famous combination, as are corn and beans. The harvesting work is done with cheap labor instead of robotic assistance. Even though hand picking a tree or a plant is very time consuming and might therefore not be very efficient, this traditional harvesting method leaves the biotope intact. This is exactly what a robot system would do in a perfect, biodiverse world.

The agriculture sector cannot change overnight, if only because of the enormous costs associated with new harvesting technologies. However, with diminishing use and therefore diminishing costs of insecticides, pesticides, artificial fertilizers and antibiotics there will be an opening in the farmer’s budget to consider alternatives for making the land more fertile and for fighting harmful insects, pests and diseases. What essentially needs to be done is for the agricultural sector, its suppliers, its customers (us) and governments to jointly carry the changing process that needs to take place.

A switch towards nature inclusive agriculture

Most of these parties understand the necessity of change. The news about the dramatic losses of insect life has been the pebble in the water which led to a far-reaching change in agricultural regulations. It opened the door for new and exciting technologies. The EU ban will mean that the agricultural sector and its suppliers shall now have to fundamentally reconsider their approach to insect and pest control. Just like Shell is investing in alternatives for fossil fuels , suppliers to the agricultural sector are investing heavily in new biological and bio-technological methods, materials and techniques. Governments are stimulating and subsidizing alternative farming methods such as organic and nature inclusive agriculture. Partly due to this stimulation, many farmers and their overarching branch organizations are making a switch towards nature inclusive agriculture as a first step away from monocultural agriculture and towards preservation of agro-biodiversity. Water basins, wooded banks, hedges and flower beds placed by farmers are important survival instruments for a sustainable and diverse ecosystem in agricultural areas. Polycultural farming, the use of natural enemies, adding micro-organisms to the soil, crop planting to enrich the soil instead of plowing: these and many other alternative farming methods are considered much more seriously by the sector since the disappearance of bees and the following ban on insecticides.

In general, technology improvements in agriculture will be leaving drawing tables and laboratories much sooner to be put to work in practice. The horticultural approach to farming is a shining example of how to implement knowledge in practice. Horticultural farmers use a scientific approach to every aspect of farming. Plant and animal breeding, genetic technology, soil choice, amount of light, nutrition choice, nutrition system, irrigation or watering system, fertilization, pollination, the use of insects, pest control, harvesting techniques, vertical farming, the use of sensors, robots: every single alternative to every single deciding factor in farming is taken into consideration. This is the direction towards which farming will move. Technology not to produce as much as possible, but technology to produce as smart as possible. Technology which investigates the exact role of every single aspect of natural life and agro-biodiversity in the light of its indispensability in the agricultural process and in life on earth in general.

The loss of biodiversity forces the agricultural world to put both knowledge of the natural world and capital intensive technologies and innovations to practical use. Due to the lost lives of many of our insect friends, precision farming has found the breakthrough it needed to emerge as the one and only representative of the future of agriculture.

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