Shortages of raw materials, lower crop quality, and less secure supply are just some of the challenges companies may face due to an emerging pollination deficit – and businesses are largely unaware of the risks, according to a new report by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.
Around three quarters of food crops depend on pollination, making pollinators worth up to $577 billion annually, of which half comes from wild pollinators. However, pollinator populations are declining rapidly, with more than a third of wild bee and butterfly species facing local extinction.
“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,” said Jos van Oostrum, Director Sustainable Solutions at Mars Incorporated.
Researchers from the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the University of East Anglia (UEA) reviewed publicly available information from 27 companies and surveyed eight – including Mars, Asda, The Body Shop, PepsiCo, and Jordans & Ryvita – to better understand the pollination-related risks within private sector supply chains. The results of their year-long project were published today in a report entitled The Pollination Deficit: Towards supply chain resilience in the face of pollinator decline.
Many companies reported they were unable to take action because of uncertainty around which crops and sourcing regions were vulnerable to pollinator decline. Unsurprisingly, companies with complex supply chains had more difficulty identifying priority raw materials that are potentially at risk compared to companies sourcing a limited number of raw materials.
“Less than half the companies sampled know which of the raw materials they source depend on pollinators,” said Gemma Cranston, Director, Natural Capital at CISL. “Their supply chains could be at risk and need additional research to identify where opportunities exist to reverse current trends.”
The team assessed the vulnerability of the top 15 pollinator-dependent food crops, including cocoa, kiwi, melon, and vanilla. Preliminary results suggested that these crops are vulnerable to pollinator decline, with cocoa being particularly at risk. Although this initiative focused on food- and cosmetics-related agricultural supply chains, the authors note that many of the identified risks are relevant to other companies with agricultural supply chains such as biofuels and apparel sectors.
“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,” said Dr. Lynn Dicks, Research Fellow at UEA. “Our analysis is revealing 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.”
One of the key solutions that the report suggests for more sustainable supply chains is certification schemes. A review of nine such programs showed some action is being taken, particularly to encourage reduced pesticide use and encourage habitat restoration, but more could be done.
“Certification schemes play an important role in driving corporate best practice. Effective integration of the needs of wild pollinators into such schemes will help companies to move faster on this issue,” said Laura Fox, Senior Programme Manager at FFI.
The study was intended as an initial exploration of the risks and how private sector action to address those risks could be scaled up. Developing a clear and convincing business case for action, improving understanding of crop vulnerability and economic implications, and engaging consumers on the issue are among the authors’ recommendations for what is needed next. For their part, the authors’ organizations are developing a vulnerability assessment framework is under development and early outputs have shown some significant potential supply chain risks linked to pollinator decline. The approach needs further refinement, but when they complete their assessment, they plan to publish the methodology in an open-access peer-reviewed journal.
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.
“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,” said Annelisa Grigg, Principal Specialist, Business and Biodiversity at UNEP-WCMC. “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.”