“Closing the gaps in crop yield, while enhancing sustainability, is among the greatest challenges for achieving food security. Ecological intensification, the improvement of crop yield through ecosystem services provided by biodiversity, may be a sustainable pathway. However, data supporting such an approach is missing, especially for two billion small-holders, many of which are undernourished. Despite fruit or seed set of many crops relying on pollinators, management for improved pollination services is uncommon, likely contributing to yield gaps globally. Indeed, pollination has been neglected even in the studies analysing the continental or global drivers of yield gaps”( 2015, Apimondia, “Scientific Program Extracts”, p. 20).
The above extract from one of the three plenary sessions at Apimondia, delivered on 17thSeptember, 2015 in Daejeon South Korea, sparked the interest of a great number of Apimondia participants. Dr Lucas Alejandro Garibaldi from Argentina proved to be a most engaging speaker.
Garibaldi outlined the three-fold pollination challenge:
- Reduce hunger – currently more than 2 billion people are reliant on small-holder agriculture for their food production.
- Match rapidly changing demand for food from a larger and more affluent society. To do this there is a need to close the yield gap. The yield gap is the difference between farmers with low yields and those with high yields.
- To close the yield gap in ways that are environmentally sustainable. The main challenge is how will we increase crop yield without destroying the environment – pollination holds the key to this challenge. It can be achieved through pollination and ecosystem services and through ecological intensification.
His five year study, the results of which are still to be published, focused on two main questions
- To what degree pollinations needs to be enhanced
- How much of the yield gap can be closed by such management?
The notion of one out of four agricultural production-increasing levers being so far largely unutilized by global agriculture was something that the beekeeping community had probably not really fully grasped. Garibaldi explained that pollination or ecosystem services (where honeybees incorporated with wild biota, incorporating incidental pollination) has the ability to revolutionise agricultural productivity globally for pollination dependent crops. Just like the agronomic inputs of water, nutrients (fertilizers) and chemicals (pesticides, insecticides and herbicides) has been exploited by agronomists and farmers worldwide to effect increased crop yields, so too pollination has the potential to become the modern era’s contribution to bolstering crop yields to feed a growing global population. Garibaldi’s study found that unlike water, nutrient and chemical inputs, ecosystem or pollination services has a positive environmental impact.
Garibaldi and his international research team studied 344 fields from 33 pollinator dependent crop systems in small (<2ha) and large holdings from Africa, Asia and Latin America, over five years. His study identified pollinator deficits by looking at both honeybees and wild pollinators in the local ecosystems. It found that “pollinator deficits may be more significant than before, as
(i) other resources (eg. nutrients) are increasingly provided (eg. fertilizers) to crops,
(ii) cultivated areas of pollinated crops are also increasing more rapidly, as is the area of pollinator independent crops cultivated
(iii) the area cultivated of pollinator-dependent crops is also expanding more rapidly than the stock of managed honeybee colonies and
(iv) wild populations of pollinators are increasingly threatened.
Furthermore, pollination-dependent crops provide essential micronutrients to humans in those regions of the world where micronutrient deficiencies are common.
His study also looked at how wild biota can influence crop yield, how many hives were needed between each crop and at the POLLINATOR DEFICIT as a factor of the yield gap. It also looked at pollination species richness and pollination density.
For Small holdings < 2 ha
The study found the yield gap was 47% and the density gap was 44%. It showed large opportunities to increase yields but that increased yields were highly dependent on species diversity. Amazingly (but not surprisingly) the study showed the most important predictor of crop yield was pollinator density – above water, nutrients, pesticides.
For large holdings > 2 ha
The study found yields could be increased by 25%. In huge crop monocultures we see globally, wild biota don’t live there anymore. These crop systems rely on pollination by managed honeybees as there are less wild insects. The study showed that the best pollination team was a combination of honey bees and wild insects and therefore that biodiversity was important. Globally we know that biodiversity is being lost, therefore flower visitor richness is being lost.
The study found that the answer to this problem lies with a focus both on and off field and introduction of wild pollinator-friendly practices which are also beneficial to bees. For example, rowed hedgerows planted alongside almond groves and flowers sown on the sides of channels increased yields. In the USA blueberries when planted with wildflowers sown to benefit pollinators increased the diversity of pollinators and yields.
The study showed increased profits to farmers, increased benefit to the environment, decreased soil erosion, decreased water contamination, increased tourism, and increased biodiversity were all possible through proactive management of ecosystem services. The study also showed that managed honeybees had no negative effects on wild insects because during the flowering cycle of crops when bees are brought in there is an abundance of flowers, and no negative effects in competition for nectar and pollen as it is in abundance.
The prospect of yield increases of up to 25%, because of pollination, is highly significant for global food security. If Australian agriculture could grasp this opportunity it would translate into billions of dollars in increased productivity. Fast forward five to ten years and imagine an Australian agricultural system where agronomists and farmers focused equally on water, nutrients, chemicals AND pollination. The system would include farmers transforming non-productive parts of their farms like channel banks or fence lines to plantings that supported populations of native bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects, where the impact of honeybee pollination services was well understood by farmers and where beekeepers were known more for their positive impact to food production rather than honey production.
This could be possible if we were able to replicate research such as this, and build on research in Australia. The global connectedness of the honeybee researchers worldwide would allow this to happen. Dr Saul Cunningham from the CSIRO is also involved in the global network of researchers investigating the role of crop pollinators in world food production.
We have a huge opportunity to leverage the five year study of Garibaldi and link it with the work of Cunningham by unlocking funding for more detailed research, to be lead by researchers such as Dr Cunningham, through the HIA pollination funding opportunity.
Garibaldi demonstrates through his research that “worldwide….ecological intensification can create win-win scenarios between biodiversity and crop yield”. (2015, Apimondia, “Scientific Program Extracts”, p. 20). Locally the work of Dr Cunningham compliments the work from this study.
The Wheen Bee Foundation is currently exploring the opportunity of bringing Dr Lucas Garibaldi to Australia and setting up a pollination symposium with beekeepers, researchers and pollination-dependent industries drawn together to build on the Australian and global body of pollination work, and to most importantly expose the Australian agricultural sector to the phenomena canvassed at Apimondia.
Jodie Goldsworthy is the Oceania President of Apimondia and a Board Director of the Wheen Bee Foundation.
Apimondia, 2015, “Scientific Program Abstracts”, Apimondia, South Korea
Garibaldi, L, 17th September 2015 “Pollination & Food Security – Plenary Session Address”, Daejeon, South Korea
Author: Jodie Goldsworthy