When it comes to agricultural productivity, the complex relationship between maximising gains and minimising losses is not well understood. Often however, farmers focus on protecting their crops from the damage caused by pests and weeds, with less concern about the collateral damage to pollinators or the positive impact these insects have on their crops. But would a strategy aimed enhancing pollination, rather than minimising pest damage, produce better yields and margins? A study titled ‘Bee pollination outperforms pesticides for oilseed crop production and profitability’, sought to investigate this question, with some uplifting results.
Conducted in western France between 2013 and 2016, researchers looked at 294 oilseed rape fields of varying compositions of ariable land and semi-natural habitats. Using pan traps, sweep nets, and visual observations they collected pollinator abundance data, which was then used to create an index to determine the relationship between pollinator type, abundance, and crop yield. To compare pesticide usage intensity among fields, the researchers created a pesticide use indicator. Linear mixed models were then applied to assess the effects of different variables and factors on crop yields and gross margins.
The study revealed that fields with higher pollinator abundance, particularly honey bees, experienced a significant boost in crop yields, with an impressive 15-40% increase compared to fields with lower pollinator populations. The research also showed that the positive influence of pollinators on crop yields was substantially undermined in fields with extensive pesticide usage. In essence, the benefits of pollinators were countered by the detrimental effects of pesticides.
One of the pivotal insights of the study was the existence of two distinct strategies for achieving higher yields in oil seed rape cultivation. On one hand, there was the option of increasing pesticide use, which emphasised the minimisation of losses, while on the other, the stress was placed on promoting higher bee abundance. Importantly, the latter approach, which favored healthy pollinator populations, not only led to improved crop yields but also resulted in better economic returns for farmers. In contrast, the study demonstrated that pesticides, despite their potential to control pests, did not contribute positively to crop yield and, as they involve additional costs, make them a less favorable choice from an economic perspective.
The study serves as robust evidence for the viability of agroecology as a sustainable and economically advantageous alternative to conventional farming methods. It not only underscores the pivotal role of healthy pollinator populations in enhancing food production but also highlights the economic benefits of adopting nature-based solutions, ultimately fostering a harmonious "win-win-win" scenario for agriculture, economics, and environmental conservation.