NEWS
07/09/2011 08:51 EDT | Updated 09/23/2011 06:00 EDT

Pollinators Worth $250 Billion, Scientist Claims

AP

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- MONTREAL - What salary would you expect to pay a force of internationally diverse workers who toil harmoniously -- without pension plans, paid overtime or the threat of union action -- to produce 87 per cent of North America's food supply?

How about... nothing?

Concordia University biologist Melanie McCavour is seeking greater recognition of the economic value of work done by bees and other crop-pollinating creatures.

She presented this issue to the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation in the presence of the continent's three federal environment ministers last month in Montreal.

The issue is one of the conundrums currently before the commission as part of its ongoing mandate to monitor the environmental impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"We want to not only protect pollinator diversity under NAFTA," said McCavour, "but we're also asking for a study to determine the exact dollar amount of these pollinators to our economy."

Current estimates of the value of global annual agricultural production provided by natural crop-pollinators are in the neighbourhood of $250 billion.

Assigning a tangible monetary value to the pollination service is the first step in establishing a protocol for protecting its workers. The logic goes that if people realize the labour value of bees, bats, birds, beetles, and butterflies, policy-makers will be likelier to develop better environmental and agricultural policies.

Any alternative to natural pollinators -- such as having untold numbers of human beings manually spread pollen with paintbrushes and Q-tips -- would be economically unfeasible, not to mention physically implausible.

With a decline in bee populations, McCavour called for major changes in pollination and agriculture practices.

The European honey bee has long been credited with bearing the bulk of the pollination burden, but there are actually more than 20,000 separate bee species which spread pollen, along with a host of other winged creatures.

Among the most effective are Africanized bees, which provide a 50 per cent higher produce yield than standard apiary honey bees. However, there are common fears about introducing the non-native species.

McCavour wants to challenge those fears.

"A lot of invasive species are pollinators," McCavour later explained in an interview.

If insects are considered contributors to an overall pollination service, she said losing a species is not necessarily a bad thing if the new species does the same, or a better, job.

Lessons learned from using a variety of pollinators can also be applied when sowing the crops themselves -- including the lesson that diversity is good.

Experimental agricultural plantations have revealed that farming an array of food crops side by side will result in a higher overall produce yield due to variations in the pollinators they will attract.

This is in direct opposition to the current practice of wide-scale orchard plantations, which may be contributing to the alarming decline of the honey bee population in North America.

California's almond growers occupy more than 800,000 acres and produce 80 per cent of the world's almond crops. These crops are pollinated entirely by commercial beekeepers who ferry the bees out to the orchards by the truckload.

"We are overworking the (honey) bees so badly," McCavour said in the interview. "They're out on the road from February until the fall."

Pollination of the almond crop in the California agricultural belt uses virtually every available commercially owned honey bee in the United States -- and McCavour says it's still not enough.

She suggests a simple solution: designating strips of land within the plantations to diversify the crops would attract wild pollinators to the area and reduce the honey bees' workload, she says.

Another roadblock to work out under NAFTA is the use of pesticides -- specifically neonicotinoids -- which are harmful to both bees and bats.

The Environmental Protection Agency had approved their use but the state of New York challenged the ruling and won, rendering pesticides containing the ingredient illegal in the United States. However, they can still be legally obtained in Mexico and Canada.

"It creates a lot of problems when you're trying to come up with a cohesive pollinator protection plan that applies to the three countries," said McCavour.

Though McCavour believes it's important to maintain overall high biological diversity, she doesn't believe we need to continually preserve the exact same species. "In fact it's impossible, under evolutionary terms."

"We also need to focus more on using ... wild pollinators," said McCavour, adding such a move would diminish some of the concern over colony collapse disorder.

"Overall high biodiversity is important so we shouldn't stress about where the diverse species originates, as long as it doesn't take over completely."

She said colony collapse is only a critical issue for farmers as long as they depend solely on one species for pollination -- suggesting that even the most productive company might benefit from a diversified workforce.

Carmen Marie Fabio, The Canadian Press