Fruit growers in the UK are already seeing less yield and lower-quality produce because of the loss of insects, scientists have told MPs, warning that a further loss of pollinators could have “significant” impacts on all crops.
As part of a parliamentary inquiry into insect decline and UK food security, Prof Simon Potts from the University of Reading told MPs at the science, innovation and technology committee that there is already good evidence of a shortfall of pollinators and a threat to food production.
He said: “That shortfall translates not only into less yield but also lower-quality produce … With poor pollination, you’re getting a shortfall in the production of nutrients, and for the farmers of course that translates into loss of profit.”
Focusing on interpreting insect-decline data, Potts’ contribution referenced a study that shows a deficit in pollination for the UK’s gala apples could equate to £5.7m in loss of production. This, he said, could be fixed with interventions to boost pollinators.
The study notes that bees and hoverflies are the main pollinators of apples, and are “essential” for global production of apples, one of the world’s most important fruit crops. The study says “direct links between insect pollination and apple quality are equivocal”, with specific mention of the number of seeds, size (which affects their marketability) and calcium levels.
Potts said there was minimal data on pollinator trends in the countries from where the UK imports many of its fruits and vegetables. “We’ve got a challenge at home, absolutely ... but we have almost no data on the status and trends of pollinators and other beneficial insects in those countries that produce a huge amount of fruit and veg that comes to the UK. That, in terms of policy and practice, is a huge challenge.”
He added: “Many of our crops – mangoes, raspberries, strawberries – are coming in from north Africa, Europe or South America. We are quite vulnerable, not only at home but also overseas.”
Insect pollination contributes more than £600m to the UK economy every year. More than 75% of all food crops require pollination, and declines have serious implications for global food security. The drivers of insect loss vary, but almost certainly include loss of habitat (driven by the expansion of agricultural land), exposure to pesticides and climate breakdown.
Research published this week revealed that conservation measures over the past 30 years have failed to stop the decline of insects on British farmland. Potts encouraged MPs to push for a new biodiverse and sustainable farming system, which he said could be be done through farming policy by way of environment land management schemes, as well as local nature recovery strategies and biodiversity net gain (BNG), both of which could include policies around insects.
Prof Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex, who was giving evidence alongside Potts, said: “Insects are quite adaptable, and they’ve been around for 480m years and survived all the mass extinction events that have gone before. But, simultaneously, if their home is destroyed, there’s nowhere to nest, they can’t find anything to eat … When you put it all together, then we shouldn’t really be surprised that they’re struggling to cope.”
He reiterated the need to improve the way we farm. “Seventy per cent of Britain, roughly, is farmland, and there is pretty clear evidence that the way farming has changed is the biggest driver of biodiversity declines. So moving towards a more sustainable approach to food production seems to me vital.”