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Supply chains at risk as wild pollinators decline

Companies face potential shortages of raw materials, a fall in crop quality and challenges around security of supply because of an emerging pollination deficit – according to new research involving the University of East Anglia.

Around three quarters of food crops depend on pollination, making pollinators worth up to US$577 billion annually, of which half comes from wild pollinators.

But pollinator populations are declining rapidly, with more than a third of wild bee and butterfly species facing local extinction.

A new report funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative surveyed eight blue chip companies including Asda, The Body Shop, Mars and Pepsico.

It found many reported they were unable to take action because of uncertainty around which crops and sourcing regions were vulnerable to pollinator decline.

The team also assessed the vulnerability of the top 15 pollinator-dependent food crops. Preliminary results suggested that these crops are vulnerable to pollinator decline, with cocoa being particularly at risk. 

Dr Lynn Dicks from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “Pollinator decline is a serious issue for crops where wild pollinators are important to production and can’t easily be replaced, because managed bees can’t do the job, or the need for them isn’t widely recognised.

“Our analysis reveals a concerning lack of knowledge about the status of agricultural pollination and its replaceability in large parts of the world, despite its clear importance to production of some highly valued ingredients.”  

“Less than half the companies sampled know which of the raw materials they source depend on pollinators,” said Gemma Cranston, director of Natural Capital at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

“Their supply chains could be at risk and need additional research to identify where opportunities exist to reverse current trends.”

Jos van Oostrum, director of Sustainable Solutions at Mars Incorporated, said: “The role pollinators play – be it tiny midges for cocoa or squirrels for coconut – is not well understood and can be taken for granted. 

“It is of critical importance we understand their lifecycles, and the habitat and conditions which enable them to thrive. This does not only help safeguard productivity of the crops we depend on, but it could also help establish ways to boost their yield potential.”

One of the key solutions for more sustainable supply chains is certification schemes. A review of nine such programs showed some action is being taken, particularly to reduce pesticide use and encourage habitat restoration, but more could be done. 

Francesca Brkic, international sustainable sourcing manager at the Body Shop, said: “The importance of pollination for natural raw materials is increasingly a priority for us. We are analysing the importance of pollination within our business to understand how we must act. Bees are very important to us and we recognise the positive impact that comes out of sustainable trade to supply chains that depend on pollinators as well as communities who produce honey and beeswax as an integral part of their livelihoods.”

The organisations involved in the project now hope to collaborate with industry, certification bodies, trade associations, governments and pollination experts to create a leadership group of companies and standard setting bodies committed to safeguarding pollinators.   

Annelisa Grigg, principal specialist, business and biodiversity, at the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), said: “We call on leading companies and standard setters to work with us to create a Partnership for Pollinators to collaborate to increase supply chain resilience.

“It is only by working in partnership in this way that we will be able to understand the full extent of the potential risks posed by pollinator decline to our vital agricultural supply chains and catalyse action to halt wild pollinator decline.” 

The project was a collaboration between the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and UEA.

‘The pollination deficit: Towards supply chain resilience in the face of pollinator decline’ is published on April 13.

Study biology at UEA

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