As we strive for greater agricultural production and efficiency, the start of a new year provides a welcome opportunity to pause and reflect. With our improvements and innovations, are we enhancing the world around us? It is good and right to enjoy the profits of responsible cultivation, but as we do so, we must also remember that every interaction with the land around us involves more stakeholders than we typically recognize.
Investing in a Flourishing Future for Everyone
In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke wrote, “Land that is left wholly to Nature, that hath no improvement of Pasturage, Tillage, or Planting, is called, as indeed it is, waste and we shall find the benefit of it amount to little more than nothing.” While Locke was arguing for the value of industrious cultivation, he forgot to account for the tremendous amount of labor that “Nature” so generously offers—ecosystem services we take for granted at the peril of our own labors.
Famously industrious, and relatively easy to manage and distribute, honeybees account for 80% of insect pollination in agricultural crops. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “Between US$235 billion and US$577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on direct contributions by pollinators.” This is largely attributable to the fact that 71 of the 100 crops that account for 90% of the global food supply are bee-pollinated.
In light of the concern surrounding bee decline around the world, most pollination research has focused on quantifying the value that would be lost without the efforts of bees. Hannah Burrack, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University has taken a more optimistic approach in her research.
Over the course of two years, Burrack and honeybee biologist David Tarpy led a team to a number of North Carolina blueberry farms every two weeks during pollination season to record the presence and impact of native bee pollinators. “If we had a greater number of wild bees present . . . we saw an increase of about 3.66 seeds per berry,” says Burrack. This is significant because with blueberries, seed number directly translates to size and therefore yield.
Based on the farmers’ pricing per pound, Burrack and her team found that when pollinated by two bee species the yield was $311/acre. Three species translated to $622/acre, and $933/acre when four species pollinated. The team observed this increase up to five species and did not reach the growth ceiling in terms of yield. Extrapolating their results to North Carolina’s entire blueberry industry, the team determined that each additional bee species present could result in a $1.4 million USD increase in final yield.
A 2014 study conducted by professors and graduate students at Michigan State University found similar results. Two years after planting a mix of 15 native, perennial wildflowers on the outskirts of productive blueberry fields, the team documented a two-fold increase in wild bee populations. The presence of the wild bees boosted yields on a scale of 10-20% when two-acres of native wildflowers were planted adjacent to 10-acres of blueberries. The yield increase was enough to offset the cost of the habitat improvement in four years or less. Rufus Isaacs, an entomologist with MSU and co-author of the paper, explains, “This gives us a strong argument to present to farmers that this method works, and it puts money back in their pockets.” Burrack adds, “We’ve shown that there is a real financial benefit associated with biodiversity. The next step is to figure out how to foster that diversity in practical terms.”
Nikki Pava, author of Green Wisdom: A Guide for Anyone to Start, Engage, and Energize a Sustainability Team, reminds that pursuing integration rather than segregation is one of the main principles of permaculture design. “Engaging the whole system so all parts work in harmony with one another is the key to restoring pollinator populations. If one part fails, the other will provide, creating a vibrant, healthy and more resilient ecosystem that can withstand more environmental pressures with time,” Pava says.
I usually explain the value of biodiversity in terms of security. Cultivating a wide variety of plant or animal species provides resistance to the inevitable impact of pests, diseases, and other natural disruptions. Burrack and company’s work provides an even more compelling reason to invest in the type of sustainable agriculture that supports a biodiverse ecosystem—it yields greater returns. When ecosystem health is a priority, producers and pollinators alike enjoy a higher quality of life.
Renowned plant ecologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it this way: “the need to resolve the inescapable tension between honoring life around us and taking it in order to live is part of being human . . . When we rely deeply on other lives, there is an urgency to protect them.”
Restoring native pollinator populations is about more than protecting a single species or reaping ecosystem services; it’s about ensuring the lives that sustain us, the too often forgotten stakeholders of the natural world, can flourish as we hope to. As you look forward to a new year, I encourage you to consider the impact of, as Kimmerer says, how you fill your basket. We can invent and invest, provide and profit in ways that promote the flourishing of all forms of life for generations to come.