During World War II, Hitler’s campaign of violence had disastrous consequences not only for the millions of civilians and soldiers who were killed, but also for the environment itself — driving the declines of bumblebees and other wildlife in the U.K. and continental Europe. Now, it seems that Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine might have a similar effect, sparking a drive to increase food production, and in so doing, accelerating the biodiversity and climate crises.
Because Britain was isolated during World War II, importing food from Europe became impossible and imports from further afield were threatened by U-boat attacks at sea. There were severe food shortages and strict rationing. Britain launched a “Dig for Victory” campaign to increase home-grown food production. Anyone with a garden was encouraged to dig it over and plant vegetables, and farmers were asked to increase productivity. Hedges were ripped out, ancient flower-filled meadows were ploughed, and ponds and marshes were drained, to bring every scrap of land into production. After the war, food shortages continued for many years as Europe recovered, so policies to increase food production were left in place. Munitions factories that no longer needed to make explosives for bombs switched to making fertilizers. Nerve agents developed to kill people in the war turned out to be useful for killing insect pests. So, industrial farming was born.
It quickly became clear that this farming system was doing great environmental damage. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, in which she highlighted the impacts that pesticides were having — poisoning farmers, livestock and wildlife. Nonetheless, the industrialization of farming continued more or less unchecked through the 20th century. Other problems became evident: Soils were becoming degraded and impoverished, rivers and lakes polluted with fertilizers and farming had become a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Bumblebees and other pollinators — my speciality — were in rapid decline in a landscape where flowers were few but pesticides were common.
In about 1990, the direction of farming began, very slowly, to change. Growing realization of the environmental costs associated with industrial farming, combined with huge surpluses of many crops that were expensive to store, led the European Union (EU) to introduce payments for farmers to set land aside, to fund agri-environment schemes such as replanting hedgerows and to begin the slow process of trying to restore biodiversity. To date, these measures have not succeeded. Wildlife continues to decline in much of Europe, but presumably declines would have been worse without these agri-environment schemes.
In recognition of the ongoing environmental crisis, the EU is now attempting a major shift toward sustainable farming in its new “Farm to Fork” strategy. This plan aims to halve pesticide use and change the emphasis in farming from maximizing yield to sustainable production, nurturing soils and wildlife and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In parallel, post-Brexit U.K. has been developing its own environmentally friendly farming system in the shape of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). The plan was to divert area-based subsidies which have been dished out to farmers for decades with payments for looking after the environment. Substantial funds were also earmarked for rewilding of less productive land. Both the European and U.K. schemes also emphasized use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), an approach to pest management that treats using a pesticide as the last resort.
From the perspective of a bumblebee-loving conservationist, this was all pretty exciting. I was looking forward to a greener future, with fewer pesticides and more land for nature, including bee-friendly flower strips along field margins. Sadly, Putin’s war on Ukraine has thrown a spanner in the works. The era of cheap and abundant food seems to have come to an abrupt end, driven by the difficulties Ukraine is having in exporting its vast grain crops, and the increased price of farming inputs, including fuel and fertilizer, caused by rising oil and gas prices. Inflation in food and fuel prices is driving a global cost-of-living crisis, such that even in wealthy countries, many people are having to choose between heating their home and having something to eat.
Putin has presented a golden opportunity for proponents of industrialized agriculture. Croplife, a lobby organization representing agroindustry (manufacturers of pesticides, fertilizers etc.) has seized the chance to renew their opposition to the Farm to Fork program and ELMS, which represent a major threat to the profitability of its funders. Among other tactics, the group has sponsored academic studies which purport to show that the Farm to Fork strategy will result in lower production, more expensive food, more imports and reduced farmer income.
No doubt proponents of industrialized agriculture are also busy behind the scenes influencing political decision-making. They argue that we should be trying to increase production once more to improve food security and bring down food prices. This message lands well with politicians trying to appease voters who are unhappy with their slumping standard of living. In the U.K., Prime Minister Liz Truss placed ELMS on hold during her brief interlude in office. The latest rumors are that the IPM element of ELMS is to be scrapped, the rewilding component greatly reduced in scope and the whole scheme generally watered down. Similarly, the Farm to Fork strategy seems to have become bogged down in its implementation, mired in debate and controversy with little progress on the ground to date.
It is vital that our governments do not lose sight of the big picture in their reaction to the war on Ukraine. There is still more than enough food in the world for everyone, if it were more equitably distributed. The climate and biodiversity crisis is the biggest threat to humankind, and this is where the focus of policy should lie. Climate chaos and the collapse of ecosystem services delivered by creatures such as bumblebees are by far the biggest hazards to food security, threatening the well-being and survival of billions. It is more urgent than ever that we transition to a truly sustainable food system, both for our own sake, and for that of our fellow creatures on planet Earth, including my beloved bumblebees.