A Local Perspective
We need bees more than bees need us.
Without bees, humans would not be able to survive. Apart from the liquid gold they produce, bees are one of our planet’s most significant pollinators. In Australia 65 per cent of agricultural production depends on pollination by European honeybees. Around one in every three mouthfuls of food that we consume comes from the aid of pollination by honeybees. More important facts can be found here: http://honeybee.org.au/pdf/PollinationAwareFactSheet.pdf
Close to 90 per cent of the world's plants rely on pollinators for fertilization and reproduction, including many of the plants we use for food. The recent extreme hot and dry weather in Australia combined with the devastating bushfires has not only destroyed habitat for native flora and fauna it has decimated food sources for our bees. This, coupled with increased use of pesticides which are harmful to bees and other pollinators, is painting a very gloomy picture.
In this story by ABC Rural Reporter Brooke Neindorf, it is clear there will be a long road ahead for fire-affected beekeepers. Beekeepers across South Australia are facing years of recovery as fires across the state have burnt many feeding sites.
During my amazing odyssey leading up to the Federal Election last year I met some remarkable individuals. A couple, which left no doubt in my mind about their passion for their industry, was Martin and Lorraine Gilbert of Laura.
This week Martin voiced his concerns in the wake of the Bangor fire stating that; “In the southern Flinders, beekeepers have been visiting landholders in the region for generations, not just to feed their bees, but to pollinate the crops of farmers as well.” He goes on to say that nearly all of their feeding sites have been lost. "Beekeepers have been working this country since 1898 and to have it burnt out and not to be able to get to this resource is actually devastating. “It’s heartbreaking to see it burnt." On so many levels, I have to concur.
Yesterday I caught up with Martin and Lorraine and sadly Lorraine updated the figures presented in the news articles posted a week earlier. These new figures paint a gloomier picture for the industry and for us. Lorraine added that current estimates put in excess of 500 bee sites burned Jan/Feb 2014 in SA over a 31 day period. Approximately 200 sites in the Southern Flinders Ranges burned alone, coupled with an estimated 100 in Ngarkat Conservation Park as well as the Riverland complex fires, Billiatt Conservation Park, Barossa/Eden Valley and on the Eyre Peninsula.
What does this mean for the immediate and long term future of agricultural production, our economy and for the security of our food supplies? I cannot say. However, according to ABARES data the value of Australian agricultural exports in 2012/13 was $37,972 million. If even 75% of that was dependent on bees, the loss to our economy would be devastating.
More facts here: http://data.daff.gov.au/data/warehouse/agcstd9abcc002/agcstd9abcc0022013/ACS_2013_1.0.0.pdf
Consider this though, if due to poor pollination rates, crops fail and food is scarce then prices will soar on the open market. We may not even be able to afford our own produce. Do you remember the price of bananas going through the roof as a result of Tropical cyclone Yasi? The harm poor pollination would bring to our crops would be far greater than the might of a tropical cyclone.
Pollination services to Australian horticulture and agriculture were valued at $1.7 billion per annum in 1999-2000 for the 35 most important honeybee dependent crops. What that figure is in 2014, I really don’t know but I think it is fair to say it is priceless.
With every bite you take, every mouthful you consume, stop for a moment and spare a thought for our beekeepers and for those remarkable busy bees.
A Global Perspective – more than just bees
I pose a question “Will we, as a nation, in 50 years’ time, have enough food to feed our growing population and have enough left over to trade with our global partners?” Food security has become a significant geopolitical issue in recent years.
In an articlewritten by student Alyce Johnston for the South Australian Globalist Magazine in 2012, Alyce wrote “According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, food security occurs when people have both physical and economic access to safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences.” This definition is more relevant to people in the developed world, as opposed to those living in developing nations who are more concerned with survival, rather than nutrients or dietary preferences.
Research shows, when people in developing countries are lifted out of poverty, their diets change.
In China, meat consumption has tripled in the past 15 years, meaning more grain is needed in order to feed their livestock. With increased production comes an increased cost of that production, including the cost of oil. When oil prices increase, the demand for biofuel grows and food prices also go up. According to the World Bank, five million hectares of cropland were used for biofuels rather than food production between 2005 and 2008.
Pressures on water resources and agricultural land have contributed to food security worries and high food prices. If the research is correct and the planet can only carry 3 billion people (current figures put our population at 7 billion), if we were to reduce our meat consumption alone, then we may be able to sustain a population of perhaps 4 billion.
Climate change will only continue to exacerbate this issue globally.
Nations such as China and Saudi Arabia (who is particularly vulnerable in terms of food security) have found a way to secure their future food supplies through the use of foreign land.
Land acquisition in foreign nations, commonly referred to as ‘land grabbing’ has become a way for developed nations to secure their food supply.
Oxfam predicts as much as 227 million hectares of land in developing nations has already been sold or leased to foreign investors since 2001, with half of this land being in Africa. To put that figure into perspective 227 million hectares is about 90% of Western Australia.
We know that foreign agricultural purchases have occurred in Australia, but the exact details of these foreign land deals are widely unknown and that troubles me. There are suggestions of corruption by governments of developing nations.
I understand that in 2008 the Cambodian Government leased rice fields to Kuwait and Qatar in return for $600 million dollars in loans, while the United Nations World Food Program delivered $35 million dollars’ worth of food aid to the impoverished Cambodian people. I struggle with that arrangement.
Food security, or rather ‘insecurity’ is real. We must encourage our government to take seriously the very real risk of losing our arable land to foreign investment.
I was encouraged to recently receive a response from Independent SA Senator Nick Xenophon to my open letter, sent in October 2013, to all SA Senators. Incidentally Nick was the only Senator to respond in detail, two other Senators did but their correspondence lacked detail. The 8 other Senators are yet to acknowledged my correspondence!
In his letter Nick writes “I am concerned that current foreign investment rules are too lax and too vague to protect the national interest. Australia needs to be aware of how much of our agricultural land we are selling and to whom, so we can maintain our future food security”.
Senator Xenophon has previously co-sponsored legislation to lower the threshold for scrutiny of foreign investment in agricultural land from $248million to $5million and ensure sales are subject to a national interest test. He says he will continue to push for these measures and I would support him in that.
This is all well and good but like the circle of life, it gets back to pollination services….and bees.
We are a lucky country but we should not take our food supplies for granted.
The areas of our State ravaged by bush fires have now, in the last 48 hours, been ravaged by flood.
Heavy rains have added insult to injury. The fragile topsoils have been washed away and damage to infrastructure including roads and on our regions farming enterprises is significant.
As I ponder the words from Dorothea McKellar’s Poem “Our Country”, I wonder what next? Perhaps famine?
Photo of Bethany Wines Vineyard by David Dahlenburg - Emerging landscape photographer from the Barossa