A public-private partnership to save our bees
Over the last few years, without much fanfare, a quiet but profound change has taken place on some of the largest General Mills supplier farms across the United States. Miles of flowering hedgerows and colorful wildflower strips have sprung up among almond orchards, tomato fields, and grain crops.
These habitat features are beautiful and, together with greater attention to minimizing pesticide risks to pollinators, represent the best science-based approach to reversing the highly publicized decline of bees. As crop pollinators, these small agricultural workers are essential for the production of high value ingredients such as blueberries, apples, almonds, squash, coffee, canola, alfalfa (necessary for the dairy industry), and hundreds of other crops.
In recent years however, beekeepers have struggled to maintain the health of honey bees due to parasite and disease problems, pesticides, and lack of pollen and nectar sources for their bees. Just as importantly, the roughly 4,000 species of wild bees in North America – many of which are more effective crop pollinators than honey bees – are also declining due to similar factors.
In fact according to a United Nations report released in February 2016, approximately 40 percent of Earth’s pollinators are now facing extinction.
Some of the factors contributing to these declines are difficult to resolve. For example the spread of honey bee diseases is facilitated by the long distance movement of hives for crop pollination; when bees from many parts of the country are brought together in mass numbers to pollinate crops, there is an increased opportunity for bee diseases to spread.
However, other factors can be addressed, especially the lack of habitat for bees. Scientists now confirm based upon global studies conducted over the past decade that restoring wildflower strips and hedgerows for bees on farms is the single most effective strategy for reversing the decline of these insects.
Moreover, research now demonstrates that when enough of this habitat is present on farms, all of the adjacent crops can be fully pollinated by resident populations of wild bees – eliminating the need for managed honey bee hives.
Building upon this strategy, General Mills and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have partnered with the non-profit Xerces Society (a leading pollinator and wildlife conservation organization) to restore large areas of habitat for pollinators on farms nationwide. Through this partnership, dollars invested by General Mills are matched 1 to 1 by NRCS, effectively doubling the impact of both partners.
In the first phase of this partnership, Xerces pollinator scientists have worked to provide tens-of-thousands of USDA staff and farmers with training on how to restore bee habitat, resulting in the creation of more than 247,000 acres of wildflower rich habitat on farms nationwide over the past few years. This training also includes detailed guidance on how to better protect bees from pesticide exposure and to increase the adoption of diverse, non-pesticide strategies for controlling crop pests.
In a second phase of this partnership, General Mills and NRCS have funded field trials by Xerces scientists through the Conservation Innovation Grant Program to test new, increasingly effective, and lower cost approaches to creating habitat on farms. The resulting work has produced living demonstration sites on farms around the country that are used as research locations for scientists studying pollinator ecology and native plant restoration.
Building upon these achievements, General Mills has gone further and is now working with Xerces to integrate pollinator habitat across much of its own the supply chain. Large-scale habitat projects are underway with farms supplying ingredients to Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, LÄRABAR and Annies, with additional projects being planned.
The net result of this partnership is an increasingly secure supply of key ingredients, and a conservation investment that aligns with General Mills’ core values.
More importantly as the single largest pollinator conservation initiative within the food industry, this approach to farming and food production represents a new model for integrating nature and agriculture, and is perhaps the best hope we have for saving our pollinators.
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