Protecting our pollinators: bee-friendly farming, by Chris Brown, Olam International


    As an agricultural company, we have a first-hand understanding of the vital role bees and other insects play in our food system and in our own global supply chains. There has been increasing publicity recently on the declining populations of bees around the world and the effect this will have: a third of the food we eat depends on pollinating insects, and it is estimated that the economic value of bees’ pollination worldwide comes to approximately US$300 billion a year¹. At Olam, we are acutely aware of our dependence on these pollinators, who we rely on to ensure our orchards, plantations and farmer suppliers continue to produce year after year.

    But we are faced with a perennial dilemma: there is risk in every course of action. We need to protect our crops – and consumers’ food – from pests that carry disease and cause damage, yet without bees or other pollinators we wouldn’t have any crops at all. That is why we need to look at the big picture and consider how the use or non-use of pesticides can impact ecosystems, soil and water quality, biodiversity, farmers’ health and livelihoods, our bottom line, and the quality and safety of crops we deliver to our customers.

    At Olam, the answer lies in balancing this risk through the controlled use of certain pesticides, and education on how to use them. We have made a commitment to limit our use of WHO Class IA and IB chemicals to exceptional circumstances where no alternatives are available, and have implemented a control plan for rarely used Class II chemicals (including neonicotinoids) in our own upstream operations such as palm and coffee plantations through our Plantation Code, and among our farmer suppliers through our Supplier Code.

    Across Africa, Latin America and Asia we work with vast networks of approximately 3.9 million smallholder farmers, often in remote and inaccessible locations – the challenge of ensuring that these producers are meeting the requirements of the Supplier Code is not one we take lightly. We are committed to educating these farmers in effective and sustainable practices including responsible pesticide use, and ensuring they have access to the tools and credit required to implement them. This clearly cannot happen overnight, but we are currently on track to meet our targets of 50% of tonnage sourced under the Supplier Code by 2015, reaching 100% by 2020.

    We train many of our smallholder suppliers in how to control their use of chemical inputs, how to safely apply pesticides, and minimise crop risk. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is one method that Olam is trialling and implementing – this includes “threshold” spraying, which adapts pesticide use according to bug levels in individual fields, and using natural methods of deterring pests such as planting maize as border crops or using pheromone traps in fields. In our trial plots, we are also finding that wasps – the bees’ much maligned relation – are proving effective natural pest controllers themselves!

    In Cochin, India, small-scale chilli farmers have been able to cut pesticide use by over 30% and costs by up to 15% through IPM, and through these methods we have produced chilli which meets all food safety standards of the European Union and United States.

    Limiting the impact of agricultural chemicals on biodiversity, soil and water quality is of utmost importance in our own upstream operations. For example, in the United States and Australia, we rely on 2.7 billion bees to pollinate our almond orchards, and we pride ourselves on bee-friendly farming techniques. Each year during the pollination period, bees are brought in and managed by a professional beekeeper, who determines where to place the bees for maximum pollination and the safety of the bees themselves. Our long-standing best practices include:

    • Avoiding the use of any insecticide products during the pollination period
    • Applying tree fungicide only at night when bees are not active
    • Experimenting with growing different bee foraging crops between trees to provide optimum bee habitats in orchards
    • Working with universities on native bee pollinator orchard projects and research

    Elsewhere in our global supply chains, we’ve found that introducing bees improves coffee yields in both quantity and quality.  Estimates vary but bee pollinations can increase fruit set from 12 – 50% on coffee farms.  When we took all of the cost and benefits into account, we saw clearly that it made good economic sense to invest in bees and with them, the livelihoods of smallholders.

    In a pilot project in Zambia, for example, we invest in 250 beehives for an average 60-75 hectare area. To help manage all those bees, we’re training local workers in beekeeping.  Each worker is responsible for a determined number of beehives, and is able to market the honey and beeswax harvested, earning extra income.

    In the end, it will always be a balancing act to produce quality crops, protect the land and environment that drives our industry forward, and to meet the international standards of food safety. But through a collaborative approach between the industry, government, farming communities and NGOs we can achieve this balance if we take a holistic view of the benefits and risks of pesticide use. In this, it is vital that we recognise the value of bees and other pollinators in protecting the future of food and developing safe, sustainable agricultural systems.

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