Pollination and International Development: How bees can help us fight poverty and feed the world

Animal pollinators are the industrious workers in the factory of life – transporting pollen from one flower to another to ensure successful fertilisation. 75% of our crop plants benefit from this free service which can increase the yield, quality and even shelf-life of their products. This translates to a US$235-577bn value to global agriculture each year. Many of our favourite foods – strawberries, coffee and cocoa – can end up shrivelled and tasteless without pollination. This ecosystem service is under increasing threat however, as pollinators face the potent cocktail of pressures we have laid upon them, declining in numbers across various parts of the world.

But what has all this got to do with international development? From what we can tell, communities in developing countries [1] are more reliant on pollinators than almost anyone, standing to lose important income, livelihoods, nutrition and cultural traditions if pollinators decline. And yet, although a number of researchers across the developing world have made substantial and important contributions to this field, limited resources and capacity have meant that only a small proportion of pollination research has focused on these regions. In fact, there isn’t even enough data to know what is happening to pollinators in the developing world, let alone how we can best conserve them and their values to human wellbeing.

Over two billion people in developing countries are reliant on smallholder farming and therefore indirectly reliant on pollinators, without necessarily knowing it.  Many valuable cash crops, for example coffee, cocoa and cashews, are highly pollinator dependent and almost exclusively grown in the developing world, providing income for millions of people. In fact the reliance on pollinator-dependent crops has increased faster in the developing world than anywhere else. Reliance on beekeeping for income and livelihoods has also increased and is becoming a common component of sustainable development projects worldwide.

Worryingly, declines in pollination will have deeper consequences than just the loss of crop yields and income. Because many of the most nutritionally important food groups such as fruits, nuts and vegetables are also the most pollinator-dependent, pollinator declines are likely to shift the balance of people’s diets away from these foods. As a result, many millions of people around the world, particularly in developing countries, are expected to become deficient in important micronutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and folate, resulting in millions of years of healthy life lost.

So what is being done about all this? In recognition of the importance of pollinators to human welfare and the threats facing them, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) commissioned a global assessment of Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production, published in 2016. This triggered a great wave of political and media attention and has resulted in the incorporation of the report’s key findings into the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Many governments are now in the process of developing national pollinator strategies, including the developing nations of Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, South Africa and India. On this wave of momentum, the CBD has also requested the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to update their International Pollinator Initiative (IPI) which aims to build greater understanding, management and conservation of pollinators around the world. This international attention won’t last forever though, so it is important that the current momentum is sustained and built upon as soon as possible, ensuring as many countries as possible – particularly in the developing world – are involved.

The UK has a valuable opportunity to contribute to these efforts. As a centre of excellence for pollination science, it is the second largest funder and producer of pollination research after the US. But only c.6% of the £95M we have contributed to pollination research in the last 10 years has any link or collaboration with a developing country (ÜberResearch 2018). As more of the UK’s Official Development Assistance budget is made available for research, there is a shift in emphasis towards research that directly contributes towards international development. New funding programmes are encouraging the UK research community to engage in collaborative projects with researchers in developing countries, building valuable research capacity. With the relevance of pollination and agro-ecology to addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, these topics may fit into this new funding landscape. However, to be effective and ethical, partners and institutions in developing countries must be involved in the design of, and stand to benefit from these collaborations. See here for a UKCDS report outlining the ways in which academics and funders can help ensure fair partnerships.

As populations in the developing world expand, along with per-capita food demands, these issues become all the more pressing. Food production will need to increase by 70% come 2050 and this cannot be achieved by simply expanding agricultural land or fertilizer input. To ensure people are well-fed, in a way that is sustainable and ethical, we will have to intensify our farming in new ways. Understanding and managing pollination may be an important part of this and is something that researchers, politicians, agriculturalists and development workers will need to engage with sooner rather than later.

[1] For simplicity, we use the term ‘developing countries’ to refer to all countries listed in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistant Committee (DAC) list of Official Development Assistance (ODA) recipients. This includes countries from a range of economic classifications, from ‘Least Developed’ to ‘Upper Middle Income’ which includes the nations of China and Brazil. Whilst we group all these nations under the broad term of ‘developing country’, we acknowledge the great heterogeneity between them in terms of wealth, development and research capacity.

This blog has been kindly reposted from the UK CDS website.  It is written by Cabot Institute member Thomas Timberlake, a pollination ecology PhD researcher from the University of Bristol who undertook a three month project with the UKCDS looking at the relevance of pollination to international development.

Thomas Timberlake

To find out more about this project you can view the full report, or watch a recording of the UKCDS Pollination and International Development Webinar.

You can also listen to Tom speaking on Nature Xposed, a University of Bristol nature radio station, about the importance of pollinators in developing countries.

If you have any comments about this blog do tweet us @cabotinstitute @UKCDS.

Olive oil production in Morocco: so many questions

No standard salad would be complete without olive oil. Our friends the lettuce, tomato and cucumber now come automatically accompanied by the vinegar and the oil, the oil and the vinegar. Perhaps in a bottle, perhaps in a sachet, perhaps in some kind of over complicated vinaigrette processed by a supermarket near you, along with lots of salt and some corn syrup, a 21st century salad in the Western world would be naked without an olive dressing.

This weekend, after an intensive academic seminar in Morocco[1], we studious seminar attendees were rewarded with a field trip. So I was taken out to visit three agricultural holdings in action. They all grew olives, but apart from that, had little in common. These three: large, medium and small producers in turn gave us a hugely insightful opportunity to witness agricultural change in action. Since the turn of the millennium the large site, on previously colonial, then state-held land had been an apple orchard and had now turned to olive oil. The medium one had been focused on cattle, making use of previous common land, that was now enclosed land, and was now diversifying with oil, watermelons, and more. The small producer produced a full range of things including olives for their own oil and most recently had established a side income in both fish and honey production.

Firstly, we learnt how to make money. Morocco’s heavily financed agricultural development programme, Plan Maroc Vert, which aims to intensify the agricultural system into a new-age competitive beacon of the modern food system, offers attractive incentives to spruce up agriculture in the country with new machines. All you need is to write a proposal (a report), have money to invest (from bank credit perhaps) and an impressive part of your money will be returned to you in state subsidies within two years.

So, for example, all three of the small, medium and large producers we visited, had benefited from a 100% state subsidy for irrigation of their crops. In the case of the ‘super-intensive’ large producer this meant state funding for the irrigation of 65,780[2] olive trees from groundwater on a rapidly declining water table. Some of the more landscape-savvy of the seminar group reminded us that olive trees had been grown in the region for centuries precisely because they did not need this kind of constant watering but could grow deep roots and access scarce water themselves. This, however, is not of interest to the ‘super-intensive’ producer. This producer is simply interested in the logic of economic growth, which in this case says: plant the trees closer, and add the chemical nutrients to the water while you’re at it. And so, these 65,780 trees are watered with the addition of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and ammonium, yet no studies are evident of what all these substances may be doing to the groundwater. By any other logic this would be a big concern, nitrogen pollution, particularly. Nitrogen pollution of water supplies, or more simply, of the nitrogen cycle, is one of the only planetary ecosystem boundaries that we have already crossed as a human race. This was not relevant in the lesson of how to make money.

Yet, I work with people, so where were they in the Moroccan olive grove? Well, it seems they have been replaced by a machine in this super-intensive oil production. The company, with links to power as far up as it goes, has invested in a machine that drives over the trees like a bridge. It shakes their branches and collects their olives.  So much for an investment in rural employment.

Some new olive trees defy the machine but are pretty un-reliable as employers too. These trees that the machine can’t manage provide jobs for only a very precarious seasonal and short-term workforce. I was told that 100 people would be employed for a space of around 200 hectares, and these jobs would last 2-3 months. The company assured us though that these workers would get both contracts and, in order to have those contracts, bank accounts. Thank goodness the banks aren’t losing out.

I should be kinder in tone about the small and medium sized farmers that we visited. Not only did their olive oil taste a lot richer, but they invited us to tea, and allowed us to share their experience of oil production more closely.  They humoured our partial language skills and our many, many questions. This was the second major thing we learnt on the trip – we were a team. We were a slightly chaotic, and erratic team, but really quite effective. A little like slugs on a cabbage, we chewed up every bit of information every which way.

Releasing a group of 13 researchers at a family farm, was a bit like inviting children to a playground, or providing clowns with an audience. Each of us found something to play with, interact with, reflect upon and smile. Some of us looked at the trees or identified the plant specimens. Others wrote notes, or took pictures, or carried out semi-formal interviews with whichever family member we felt most comfortable with. Others played with material toys, climbing ladders, smelling fruit or knocking on enormous oil containers to discover them empty. As we found the olive branches, force-fed powder food through irrigated pipes, or in the smaller farm providing shade for some resident chickens, this seminar group grew together, discovering the knowledge of the peasant farmer.  This experience was far richer and engaging than any power point presentation or report.

More images can be found on the original blog.


[1] “Workshop on Agricultural Labour and Rural Landscapes in the Arab World” Organised by the Thimar collective and supported by the École Nationale d’Agriculture de Meknès, the Leverhulme Trust and the London School of Economics.

[2] Calculated based on 286 plants/hectare in a cultivated area of 230 hectares, this was the details of the holding advertised by the company.

This blog is written by Lydia Medland, a PhD student at the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies who is looking at the role of seasonal workers in global food production, specifically in Morocco and Spain.  This blog has been reposted with kind permission from her Eating Research blog.  View the original blog post.

Lydia Medland

Read Lydia’s other blog: Watermelon work

How Bristol geologists are contributing to international development

Guatamala.  Credit: Geology for Global Development

It maybe isn’t immediately obvious how a pet-rock-owning earth scientist is able to change the world; the basement labs in the Wills Memorial Building seem a far cry from fighting global poverty. But the study of geology and having a knowledge of the earth and its resources is actually vitally important for the success of many international development projects.

Geology for global development: what is it all about?

Geology for Global Development (GfGD) is a national organisation that wants to bring awareness to the important position that geologists are in, to be able to make a difference. And it’s not just geologists that are involved here; GfGD recognises that through the collaboration of students from a wide range of disciplines, a positive and effective contribution to development can be made. For example, earth scientists can learn a lot from anthropologists about working alongside different communities whilst being sensitive to cultural differences.

This has been the first year for the GfGD society at Bristol and so far we think it has been a great success. We have held talks covering a whole variety of topics: from volcanic hazards in Guatemala, to sustainably procuring our world’s resources, to an overview of what it is actually like to be working in aid and development as a volunteer. We aim to offer earth scientists and geographers, and anyone else who is interested, an alternative view of the opportunities available to them, aside from the more traditional career paths that often flood everybody’s radars. And alongside this, we’re also trying to raise awareness of the social science skills that are necessary for successful and sustainable development projects.

This year’s focus: volcanic hazards in Guatemala

There is one project in particular that the national GfGD group is currently working on: strengthening volcanic resilience in Guatemala. At Bristol we’re perfectly placed to contribute to this because every year students on the MSc Volcanology course spend 3 weeks studying the volcanoes in this country and learning about the agencies that are set up to monitor them. To draw on all of their experiences we held a ‘Noche de Guatemala’ to learn about this beautiful country and hear how the people living in the shadows of volcanoes are in dire need of better resources and escape routes to ensure their safety in case of eruption. As part of this event we also introduced some cultural aspects of the country as well as the current socio-political situation to put the project into context. In the discussion session that followed we saw some great suggestions for strengthening resilience, from ways to make crops that aren’t affected by volcanic eruptions, to ideas for community involvement with volcano monitoring agencies. These ideas have been passed on to the director of the national GfGD group to help inform how the project might proceed.

Noche de Guatamala at the University of Bristol. Credit: Serginio Remmelzwaal.

As well as contributing to the Guatemala project through awareness and discussions, our group has also managed to raise a fantastic £279.36 towards GfGD’s £10,000 target. This money will be used to supply improved resources to the monitoring agencies and provide educational materials for the communities affected by volcanic hazards so the risks and evacuation procedures are better understood.

Mapping for humanitarian crises

As you will probably be aware, over 9,000 miles away from the volcanoes in Guatemala, another type of natural hazard stuck violently on the 25 April this year. The 7.8 magnitude Gorkha earthquake in Nepal caused the death of more than 9,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. We wanted to do something that could really contribute to the relief effort so we decided to hold two ‘mapathons.’ This is where a group of people get together and use OpenStreetMap with satellite images to add buildings, roads and waterways to areas where this information doesn’t exist. This work is an enormous help to aid agencies that need to know all of this information to be able to help as many people as possible.

We’ve been busy this year and can’t wait to get even more people involved next year. We’ll be back in September with more talks, mapathons and hopefully some new style events to inspire anyone interested in earth processes to think again about how their knowledge could be used to bring about positive change in the developing world.

This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Emily White, a postgraduate student in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol.

If you want to find out more about this society, request to join our Facebook group.

Email emily.white@bristol.ac.uk to join the mailing list.


Discussing Rio+20 at the House of Lords

Last month I went to the House of Lords for a meeting of the All party group for international development and the environment.  The morning’s question was: Where next for sustainable development after Rio+20?  I’ll give a brief resume of who said what, with some of my thoughts following over the next weeks….

Joan Walley, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North opened the morning’s reflections on Rio.  She chairs the Environmental Audit Committee which monitors action across different government departments. At the top level, Rio lacked vision and clear objectives. Her select committee really tried to engage with government, but there was no commitment from the PM that he was going, and no clear vision from them.  She felt the process needs to be reinvigorated – connecting, collaborating, and understanding the details – e.g. how the proposed Sustainable Development Goals will link with the Millennium Development Goals.

Stephen Hale from Oxfam  asked how do we accelerate the pace of global change on sustainable development and increase the scale of national change? This is beyond Rio, of which he had very low expectations (and was still disappointed). Why were the outcomes so poor? His thesis was we are living in a period where multilateralism is weak – the G20 also had very poor outcomes.  The breadth of issues – the triple line of economy, ecology and equity – is understood by the Rio community but the multilateral process is too weak to deliver change. He put forward:

  1. Understanding the concept of sustainable development does not itself deliver change
  2. Change comes by confronting vested interests and shifting power. Need to build coalitions. Don’t need unifying  concept
  3. Multilateralism matters hugely but we need to pick our battles. Be selective
  4. Business conversation was in a parallel universe. NGOs highlighting how terrible Rio was while business was much more bullish
  5. We need a new set of clear and ambitious global goals to follow the MDGs.

Steve Waygood is the Head of Sustainability Research and Engagement, Aviva Investors.  Companies like Aviva know that the economy is on an unsustainable footing. Aviva worked with Forum for the Future to outline a vision for a sustainable economy by 2040 – http://www.forumforthefuture.org/project/framework-sustainable-economy/overview.  Aviva’s goal is that every company over £2 Bn should be thinking about sustainability and report their achievements in their annual reports.  At Rio, Aviva proposed a Convention on Corporate Sustainability Accounting, which wasn’t accepted overall but elements were included in the final agreement.  Steve highlighted the massive need for good data in the area of sustainability – 90% of what Bloomberg needs to report in this area is missing.

Lord Julian Hunt was part of the GLOBE world summit of legislators at Rio, which had representatives from 180 countries.  One of the major questions was how parliaments should participate in international work and legislation – they are complementary to each other and we need progress on both. Lord Hunt highlighted how rarely the work of UN Agencies such as the WHO is debated in parliament – only once in the House of Lords.  Population was an issue that barely featured at Rio in 1992, but was discussed much more this year, especially by the developing nations.  He mentioned that South India now has a static population, and highlighted the importance of understanding local context and perspective (rather than a ‘western NGO’ view).  Sustainability, for example, means very different things in different parts of the world.

Andrew Scott is a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, and was happy to see an agreement in principle to idea of sustainable development goals and initiation of a process to develop these.  He queried how energy would feature in these goals, and questioned the level of agreements that can be realistically reached at international level when national governments ultimately make the decisions.  He highlighted case studies from the ODI development progress programme that show how much progress is being made at the national level – for example in Costa Rica where payments for ecosystem services have been used to tackle deforestation.

Miguel Pestana is the Vice President for Global External Affairs at Unilever.  He reflected that from a business perspective there was a lack of specificity and ambition, although Unilever are committed to integrating sustainability with their  business and there were 1000+ CEOs at Rio.  But with 60% of the world’s governments in election cycles in this year, he was not surprised at level of political commitment and ambition.  Nonetheless, there were some significant commitments – e.g. on deforestation involving Walmart, Telco and Unilever.  He highlighted the critical role of the UK government in shaping the process and engaging business – the UK is hosting the G8 and G20 meetings, and David Cameron is co-chairing the review of the MDGs.  He called for specificity – the SDGs need to include nutrition, sanitation and hygiene – as Jeffrey Sachs eloquently outlines in his recent Lancet article.

David Nussbaum, Director of WWF, compared what was politically possible at Rio (given that Brazil removed anything controversial from the text) with what is scientifically necessary. The stifled official process meant that more interesting things happened in the fringe – UK watercourses convention, disclosure by quoted companies of their emissions.

He saw much positive action from the private sector and questioned how to encourage more and to help, strengthening links between the economy and the environment.  He cited work on natural capital, of which UK Govt Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington has been a good supporter, and the ways that fossil fuel subsidies, and agriculture and fisheries practices damage this.

Questions from the floor included how the MDG and SDG processes will relate to each other, and highlighted a need for a framework to clarify how this will happen.  The role of pressure from the bottom up, and an engaged and informed citizenry were seen as central to aligning political will and scientific imperative.  Miguel Pestana hoped to see a co-creation approach for the SDGs, with less emphasis on the word ‘goal’ in a highly volatile and changeable situation.