Pesticides are a key driver of declines in populations of bees and other pollinators such as butterflies. Honeybees – which pollinate 40% of leading food crops – are suffering dramatic losses and many species of wild bees and other pollinators are at risk of extinction.
Given that much of this damage is being done in the name of food production, UK supermarkets have a key role to play in reversing this worrying trend. At the very least, they must take measures to ensure that their global supply chains ‘do no harm’ to our already-struggling pollinators. Supermarkets also have the opportunity to drive positive change by encouraging their suppliers to adopt pollinator-friendly practices such as maintaining uncultivated land along field margins.
In recent years, much of the debate around the impact of pesticides on bees and other pollinators has focused on a class of chemicals known as ‘neonicotinoids’. In 2018, the EU banned three neonicotinoids known to be particularly harmful to bees. As a result, farmers from across Europe (including the UK) are not permitted to use these chemicals, but they are still used elsewhere in the world. This means that many products on UK supermarket shelves will have been grown in a way which is extremely harmful to bees. In other words, we are exporting our environmental footprint to countries with weaker standards.
While recent attention has largely been on neonicotinoids, there are a number of other pesticides which can be particularly toxic to bees (for example, Fipronil and Sulfoxaflor). Supermarkets should be monitoring or restricting these chemicals in their supply chains, with the aim of eliminating their use and moving over to non-chemical alternatives.
Currently, most UK supermarkets do have some measures in place to protect pollinators but fall significantly short of ensuring that bees and other pollinators are not harmed by their operations. Bee-harming neonicotinoids are still used widely in the majority of supermarkets’ global supply chains. In fact, while some other supermarkets monitor or restrict the use of neonicotinoids, only Aldi has banned their use by all of its suppliers, regardless of whether they are based within the EU or further afield.