Why have we just asked our growers to end the use of three formulations of neonicotinoids on fresh produce by the end of 2014?
Simple. Our bees are in trouble and no one really knows why. What we do know for sure, though, is that in the past few years our bees have seen a substantial decline in numbers and out of the 27 species of bee in the UK, three are now extinct and others are in serious decline - by as much as a third since 2007.
Many causes have been cited for these declines, from diseases such as the varroa virus that can wipe out whole colonies in one go to habitat loss and our recent wet summers not allowing bees to find the pollen they need.
Bees and other pollinators are critical to the production of a third of our food and yet too often we barely take any notice of them they’re just there, aren’t they? Increasingly though, they’re not, and that’s got experts worried and frantically trying to find out why they are ailing.
” Bees and other pollinators are critical to our food production”
Earlier this year, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) voiced its worries about the use of some neonicotinoid formulations on flowering crops. Understandably, this has proved controversial as conclusive empiric evidence is limited. However, a number of respected researchers have also expressed significant concern that neonicotinoids could be linked to failing pollinator populations and particularly our sick bees.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that Waitrose is a restorative retailer - we want to put more back into the environment than we take from it, one of the key principles and commitments of the Waitrose Way.
Our UK growers already sign up to the principles of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and our dairy and livestock farmers undertake stewardship work on their land to encourage biodiversity across our production estate.
With all this work in hand we felt we had to act on the neonicotinoid issue and ask our farmers to stop using the three that are causing most concern - imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam - as a precautionary measure until further evidence emerges.
Alongside asking our fresh produce growers to stop using the three formulations on flowering crops attractive to bees, we have launched a Seven Point Plan for Pollinators, which we hope will bring some further clarity to the debate. Under the plan, we are supporting more research into the effects of pesticides on pollinators through research we are funding for the next three years at Exeter University.
We’re going to roll out our restriction on the three formulations across flowering commodity crops such as oilseed rape when we can and involve our customers in bee research in conjunction with Earthwatch and the University of Sussex.
Let’s be clear, this is not a clear-cut case of finding a smoking gun in these three pesticides. However, the weight of concern around them is so great and the issue of bee and pollinator decline so grave, that we felt it important to take steps that will, at the very least, move forward our understanding of this troubling situation.
Mark Price is managing director of Waitrose