Food retailers must protect pollinator species, too

organic heads of Romaine lettuce

With 40 percent of pollinators on the verge of extinction, support from the food retail industry is desperately needed to prioritize the sale of organic, bee-friendly foods.

Bees and other pollinators are responsible for one in three bites of the food we eat. Thanks to these industrious little workers, we have foods such as strawberries, almonds, tomatoes, apples, and broccoli. In fact, bees pollinate 71 out of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, according to Friends of the Earth (FOE). These pollinators enable humans to grow enough food to survive.

Unfortunately, they are also in great danger, ironically due to human attempts to increase crop yields. The use of agricultural pesticides has resulted in 40 percent of all pollinator species being on the verge of extinction. Bees cannot withstand neonicotinoids, the most popular insecticide that is used on 140 crops worldwide and persists in the soil for years. FOE describes the effect these chemicals have:

“Even low levels of exposure can impair foraging abilities and navigation; disrupt learning, communication and memory; reduce fecundity and queen production; and suppress the immune systems of bees, making them more vulnerable to disease and pests.”

Similarly glyphosate, a main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup that is applied in ever-increasing quantities to combat hardier weeds, destroys milkweed, the only food for young monarch butterflies. The population has declined by 90 percent and would need a five-fold increase in order to stabilize.

pesticides in USA
Friends of the Earth/Swarming the Aisles report

Food retailers play a key role

While consumer awareness is one important step toward protecting pollinator species, Friends of the Environment believes that food retailers can play a very large role. By prioritizing the sale of pollinator-friendly food (grown on organic farms that support approximately 50 percent more pollinator species than conventional farms), food retailers could create valuable space in the market for farmers that grow organic food, protect their pollinator species, and reduce pesticide use.

Currently many retailers have policies and purchasing practices that focus on other sustainability issues. The five most common policies pertain to energy, waste, seafood, animal welfare, and palm oil. Sadly pollinators are not on the list, despite being, some would argue, the most important.

Friends of the Earth conducted a survey earlier this year to see how much consumer interest there is in shopping at grocery stores with clear policies for pollinator protection. It found that 80 percent of Americans believe it is important to eliminate neonicotinoids.

“Among Americans who grocery shop for their household, 65 percent would be more likely to shop at a grocery store that has formally committed to eliminating neonicotinoids. The poll also revealed that 59 percent of American grocery shoppers believe it is important for grocery stores to sell organic food, and 43 percent would be more likely to shop at a grocery store that sells more organic food than their current grocery store.”

With such interest in organics, you’d think that more retailers would have plans to increase supply, but unfortunately they do not. FOE found that only 4 out of the top 16 food retailers in the United States – Albertson’s, Costco, Target, and Whole Foods – have “a publicly available company commitment to increase offerings of certified organic food or to disclose data on the current percentage of organic offerings or organic sales.”

Surely, with conscientious shoppers driving demand for organics, food retailers will eventually have to respond; but we’ve reached a point where time is of the essence. The sooner there is a global shift away from these pesticides, the better chance pollinator species have for survival and the more secure our entire food system becomes.

Read FOE report here: “Swarming The Aisles: Rating Top Retailers on Bee-Friendly and Organic Food”

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