Bee Happy? Probably not….

During the last weeks, there has been a lot of press about the effects of pesticides, especially neonicotinoid components, on pollinators and in particular on honeybees. My wife is called Bee, so you can understand my interest in the topic.


The stories were already there in previous years, but the recent decision by the European Commission to call for a two-year moratorium on three of the main products has galvanised the opinions.

The European Commission decision was mainly based on the precautionary principle: The law-makers are not sure what the effects are, but they are concerned. The Commission therefore wanted to take the precaution to install certain restrictions, which could be lifted if they were re-assured that there is no risk”. The European Food Safety Authority stated that there is a lack of data and recommends to carry out further research, but it has labeled some of the products unsuitable for use on flowering crops used by honeybees.

Interestingly, the Swiss government decided against introducing the same restrictions in Switzerland. Minister of Agriculture Johann Schneider-Ammann claimed the European Commission findings were flawed.

A few days ago, British Minister for Environment Owen Paterson expressed his doubts about the European Commission decision, and suggested that Britain would not support the proposals.  France, the Netherlands and Poland were in favour of the moratorium.

The industry claims that the restrictions on the use of these pesticides, makes agricultural production more difficult and more expensive, and that without certain chemicals the risk of disease and crop failure increases. They argue that we cannot afford this in times of food shortage and a growing population, and that the risks are minimal with appropriate dosage and application. They do not say that the chemicals are harmless, but state that “studies into the impact of neonicotinoid based products on European pollinator populations are inconclusive”.

During discussions last Friday, EU Member States did not back the proposals from the Commission, and the moratorium will therefore not take place. Not my preferred option, as I believe in the precautionary principle, and it is better to be safe than to be sorry. But, the decision was made not to impose the restrictions.

Now that the discussion is over, I take away four key messages:
1. We need more studies and better understanding about the effects of the chemicals. This has to be independent, unbiased information about the long-term ecological side-effects of current products. Resolution 137 of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju in September 2012 calls for a comprehensive scientific review of the impact on global biodiversity of systemic pesticides by the joint task force of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) and the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM). One has to assume that this review will be unbiased and credible!

2. We need new components and safer compounds. This requires Research and Development, especially by the industry. The European Commission, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and national authorities should work together with the industry to promote more R&D and ensure that research is focused on finding appropriate alternatives.

3. Thirdly, we need increased efforts to support bees and other pollinators in the field. Farmers and beekeepers will need to combat the spread of parasites and diseases, such as the varroa parasitic mite, but habitat loss has been identified as one of the other key issues that contribute to the decline of pollinators. We can turn habitat degradation around through promotion of High Nature Value agriculture with a rich mix of flowering plants, healthy field margins and hedgerows, well maintained stone walls, patches of woodland or scrub, small rivers and ponds, and avoidance of large-scale monoculture cropping.

4. Finally, where pesticides are used, the industry needs to continue its efforts to combat use of illegal substances, and to train farmers how to apply chemicals in the most effective manner.

Communicating nature – or not?

For the past months, I participated in a very interesting debate between natural resources managers on LinkedIn, which started with the question “is biodiversity dead?” The debate revolved around the reasons why the natural resources management community seem to have a real job in explaining to the rest of the world that nature is important. I then found another, equally interesting, LinkedIn discussion based on the question of “how to engage the masses for resource management solutions for the future”. As the two debates were in some ways similar, I analysed the more than 180 comments in both discussions.

We all agree that there is a need for behavioural change. There are too many people on this world to maintain status quo, and as we cannot create another planet or get rid of a large number of people, we have to look for other ways to live with nature. The problem we identified as natural resource managers is that we seem to be unable to convince “the others” about this need to change our behaviour. Mind you – my wife reminded me that in general we know a lot more than our parents did about our interactions with nature, so we are starting to get there, but it takes time to generate behavioural change.

We recognise that the public is multi-faceted, and that the situation varies from place to place, but we generally agree on the main challenges:

  • The concept of biological diversity and ecosystem health is too complex. On the one hand the experts speak in technical, scientific language that is not readily understood by lay-people and we are not able to explain why global issues matter to the individual. On the other hand, people believe the issues are so difficult to deal with that there is a reluctance to even get involved. Another way of looking at this is that a lot of people do not see how nature in their backyard relates to the global discussions about the future of the earth.
  • The market economy that drives most of the world is short-sighted and looks at quick profit rather than long term sustainable yields. As a result, politicians do not feel the need to take long-term impacts too serious either. This lack of political will prevails particularly at the national and international level.
  • There are many positive examples at the local level, both institutional and individual, but they are not given enough air-time. We seem to have a problem in showing positive messages and using the case studies to bring home the success stories, and still focus on “doom and gloom” scenario of loss of species and ecosystem degradation.
  • There is a lack of leadership in the nature conservation world, with many organisations preaching their own form of religion and not enough coherence and coordination amongst the many players. This confuses the public, and dilutes potential strategic action.
  • A large portion of the world now lives in cities, and more and more young people have lost their connection with nature. Education must help to restore the link with the natural environment, where possible.
  • Selling something that people not really want is like pushing a heavy rock uphill. We need consumers to ask for change, rather than us demanding that consumers change. Scientists are not good at marketing, and we have not managed to find the right jargon and methods to sell the message.
  • Part of this is to do with recognising values and making people aware of the potential profits or cost reduction that is a result of better management of natural resources. TEEB has started to define the values of nature and the cost of degradation, but we need to do more.

What do we need to do to proceed, and to accelerate the level of progress? We need to explain how the global species and ecosystem crisis affects all of us, and I have seven recommendations on how to do this:

  1. Better communication – simpler, demand-driven messages, using new media channels to reach young people.
  2. Break down the complexity – translate global challenges into local issues and make all people realise that we are part of nature
  3. Improved delivery of our messages – link up with marketing and media experts to make our messages more interesting.
  4. Positive messaging – people respond better to good news, and there are many positive stories out there, especially successful local case studies.
  5. Practical education – link theory to practice and get students out into nature where possible.
  6. Define values and economic costs and benefits –shows CEOs the impact on their balance sheet
  7. Generate political will – show decision-makers why nature is important. A group of high-profile Ambassadors for Nature would help to influence politicians and other leaders.

A challenge, but if we do not get it right, the gloom and doom scenario may become reality!

The future of old railway lines?

Many cities have old tram lines or railway tracks that are no longer used, because they have become unprofitable, or have ended up in the wrong place. If these old tracks are developed as green infrastructure corridors, they will help with the maintenance of the natural fabric of the city.One of the most exciting urban developments of this genre that I came across last year was the High Line in New York: An old, disused high-level railway line that has been transformed into a park-on-stilts. The website explains that it is very popular with local residents and business folk alike, who use it during lunch breaks or for an evening stroll above the hustle-bustle of the city.

A few days ago, I read a story in the Guardian Weekly with a reference to a very similar idea in Paris: “la promenade plantée”. This is a raised park that follows the old Vincennes Railway in the centre of the city. The main story in the Guardian Weekly article is about the big debate over what to do with the circular railway around the centre of Paris – the Petite Ceinture, which is no longer in use. There are various options ranging from restoring the tracks to leaving the area as a wildlife reserve. Walking and/or cycling paths are other potential uses of the former railway line.

Outside cities, there are equally good examples of use the old tracks for walking or cycle paths, and there are many in The Netherlands and Belgium. I remember that in my youth there was a goods train service between Tilburg in the Netherlands (where I lived) to Turnhout in northern Belgium. This was called the Belgian tracks (Bels Lijntje). The last official train used the track in 1973, although there were still tourist steam trains between Tilburg and the border for another ten years. Now, the old railway track is a bicycle path, as you can see on the following photo from Wikipedia:

Bicycle track - former "Bels Lijntje"

Bicycle track – former “Bels Lijntje”

More recently, I was on the nice cycle path along the River Avon from Bristol to Bath in the UK. The “Bristol & Bath Railway Path” was constructed on the track bed of the former Midland Railway which closed for passenger traffic at the end of the 1960s.

I like the following photo to end this short story about disused railway lines. It was one of the entries for the biodiversity picture contest of the french company Eiffage. The author of this great photo is Eric Caillon, and he calls it “when nature takes back its rights”.

photo by Eric Caillon (2006) for Eiffage picture contest.

photo by Eric Caillon (2006) for Eiffage picture contest.