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World Bee Day 2023: Time for sustainable solutions to tackle locust upsurges

An urgent call to safeguard pollinators during pest eradication campaigns.

by Elena Lazutkaite, Adam Prakash, Alexander Müller | 2023-05-25

World Bee Day 2023: Time for sustainable solutions to tackle locust upsurges

Pollinators, those humble and tireless workers, now find themselves teetering on the precipice of extinction. And we are the culprit. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has warned that nearly 35 percent of invertebrate pollinators, including wild bees and butterflies, face extinction globally. Against this backdrop, this year’s commemoration of World Bee Day, led by FAO, took on the theme ‘Bee engaged in pollinator-friendly agricultural production’, emphasizing the urgent need for the global action to support sustainable agricultural practices.

Despite the optimistic theme, the implementation of bee-friendly practices continues to fall behind,particularly in relation to the extensive use of pesticides for protecting crops from insect pests. Among the most alarming pest control practices is the large-scale application of neurotoxic pesticides to fight transboundary locust upsurges and plagues. It is time to delve deep into this issue and address our collective responsibility.

The Pesticide Problem: Delayed Response

In recent memory, three destructive desert locust upsurges and plagues have ravaged economically vulnerable and food-insecure countries, particularly in Africa (1986-89; 2003-2005; and 2019-2022). During these invasions, FAO, entrusted with early warning and management of locust outbreaks, has consistently relied on chemical broad-spectrum pesticides. Such a strategy can be attributed to the magnitude of these outbreaks and the unfortunate reality that action to control locusts often comes too late. The lack of proactive measures, hindered by challenges in Early Warning-Early Action systems and limited resources, in turn forces reactive responses that heavily rely on fast acting but highly toxic pesticides, inflicting unfathomable harm upon bees and other pollinators.

Environmental Destruction in the Horn of Africa

During the 2019-2022 upsurge in the Horn of Africa, FAO, with the support of its donors including, the European Union (EU), has procured a staggering 1.8 million litres of chemical pesticides. Alas, all affected countries (except Somalia) resorted to these chemicals as a first, last, and only line of defence to safeguard their already threatened food security, albeit with unintended consequences for fragile ecosystems.

In our study published in the peer-reviewed journal Agronomy, we analysed the data-driven evidence on impacts to honeybees, shedding light on the scale of environmental destruction. In Ethiopia, prior the locust invasion, yearly honey production was growing at a healthy rate of 4%. However, the relentless spraying of organophosphate pesticides to kill locusts continued for 24 consecutive months, including during flowering and honey harvesting times. Our research revealed that by 2021, honey production slumped by 78%. The potential cascading effects on ecosystems in the Horn of Africa, home to some of the world's most diverse pollinator areas, could amount to billions of US dollars.

The Need for Comprehensive Monitoring

Mounting evidence unequivocally links chemical pesticides to environmental and human casualties. Yet, systematic and thorough environmental and human health monitoring remains absent during and after locust upsurges, leaving a blind spot in the assessment of the “collateral damage.” Had such monitoring been diligently undertaken, concrete actions against the use of hazardous organophosphate pesticides in locust control could have been taken long ago. Notably, organophosphates chlorpyrifos and fenitrothion, which were sprayed on a large scale in the Horn of Africa, are banned within the EU due to their inherent dangers. It is the collective responsibility of global actors to ensure that action to protect bees transcends geographical borders.

Safer Alternatives Exist

The decision to employ organophosphates is perplexing, considering that safer and equally effective alternatives exist. One such alternative is the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium acridum, which was developed by scientists in the late 1990s. Operationally, this bee-friendly agent has only been applied in Somalia during the recent campaign. Somalia’s successful biopesticide operation has demonstrated that an alternative approach to pest control is within reach and crucial for protecting the country's apiculture and wildlife.

A Call for Change

In the face of the rising frequency and severity of locust outbreaks fuelled by climate change, the status quo of purposeful environmental destruction in the name of disaster management is no longer tenable. Currently, the Moroccan locusts are ravaging Afghanistan posing serious threat to the country’s food security and livelihoods. It comes as no surprise that the FAO is calling for funding to deploy chemical control starting in September. However, we must not disregard the far-reaching environmental repercussions that accompany such actions.

Collaboration and Early Warning Systems

World Bee Day serves as a call for consistent action in catalyzing a shift in our approach to pest control globally. International donors, including the EU, should direct their investments towards sustainable solutions that safeguard both livelihoods and the environment. Collaboration among governments, international organizations, and civil society is essential to providing support to vulnerable countries. Access to intelligent Early Warning-Early Action systems enables early detection and response to locust outbreaks, which could eliminate the need for chemical pesticides.

Ultimately, World Bee Day served as a stark reminder that the fate of our bees and pollinators is intertwined with our own. Their survival is not merely an ecological concern but a matter of global food security, and the well-being of future generations. The time has come to give precedence to sustainable alternatives and foster collective action, forging a world where pollinators can flourish abundantly.

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