A critical look on the petition for a referendum “Wildlife conservation – ‚save the bees‘“

by Dr Tankred Schaer, Horticultural Scientist

In accordance with the Constitution of the Federal State of Baden-Wuerttemberg this petition for a referendum embodies a bill which either can be adopted by the federal state parliament or has to be put to the vote of the people. As precondition for this, ten percent of the persons eligible to vote must support the petition by giving their signature – in Baden-Wuerttemberg that’s 770,000 citizens.  The initiators have to collect these signatures within a period of six months.
After the federal state government had presented a so called „benchmark paper“ on 15 October as an alternative to the legislation draft (https://volksbegehren-artenschutz.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Gemeinsames-Eckpunktepapier-des-MLR-und-des-UM-f%C3%BCr-Insektenschutz-und-mehr-Artenvielfalt.pdf) the group responsible for the petition for a referendum on Wildlife conservation announced that they were not going to collect any further signatures up to mid-December. Obviously, the information of the population about the consequences of the planned law change was so successful that the initiators now prefered to follow the alternative proposed by the government.
The original draft law includes far-reaching state interventions in the economic freedom of farmers. The aim of sustaining and promoting biodiversity shall be achieved mainly by expanding organic farming and restricting the use of pesticides.
As reasonable as this demand might seem at first glance, it must still be questioned whether the use of pesticides really constitutes the core problem for wildlife conservation. (https://www.unihohenheim.de/pressemitteilung?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=44682&cHash=bb8c4baafce57b4ecb3c57c82f1580a0).
Already today, a multitude of rulings and protective provisions exist which restrain the use of pesticides to the necessary extent and intend to prevent damaging effects on natural balance. Pesticides can only be used if really inevitable – this is stipulated in the German Plant Protection Act, for example. As well as it makes little sense for medical practices to prescribe only half the medicines, this demand is just as inappropriate with regard to farming.
The protection of bees, in particular, is guaranteed to such an extent that there are no reasons to consider further tightening up if one keeps the issue in perspective. Nor is there any necessity to „save the bees“ as the draft law demands. In the region near Lake Constance for instance, the fruit growers make huge efforts for the benefit of biodiversity as well as, for many years, for the promotion of wild bees.
Monitoring of the wild bee population revealed that an increase in abundance of species could also be observed in orchards where traditional intensive farming takes place. Among others, 25 species were found which had been categorised as endangered throughout Baden-Wuerttemberg or as not safe according to the warning list, such as the „Bärtige Sandbiene“ (Andrena barbilabris), the „Grosse Harzbiene“ (Anthidium byssinum), the „Waldpelzbiene“ (Anthophora furcata) or the „Rötliche Kegelbiene“ (Coelioxys rufescens). The detection of the „Schwarzblaue Sandbiene“ (Andrena agilissima) which is deemed as severely endangerd throughout the federal state must be seen as a regional singularity (https://www.badische-bauern-zeitung.de/wildbienen-obstbauern-schaffen-trendwende). Not only the wild bee populations are recovering but also the number of honey bees has increased in recent years - there is no dying of the bees (https://deutscherimkerbund.de/161-Imkerei_in_Deutschland_Zahlen_Daten_Fakten).
The state association of Baden beekeepers has stated that the beekeepers do not support the referendum in its present form. The popularity of the bee is misused for other purposes. The problem of decreasing biodiversity cannot be solved by implementing the contents of the referendum (https://www.bodenseebiene.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/stellungnahme-lv-rettet-die-bienen.pdf).
Farmers, gardeners and winegrowers rightly complain that the draft bill does not even acknowledge their commitment. As if there had been no regulations on nature conservation in agricultural production, the present draft bill aims to reduce the use of pesticides of by 50% by 2025. At the same time, there are already numerous regulations on biotope protection, e.g. the state law on nature protection, the agriculture act, the “Landeskulturgesetz”. There are nature reserves, Natura-2000 areas, and conservation areas in various categories.
The legislative proposal now stipulates that in all these areas no plant protection may be allowed to continue, even though intensive fruit-growing, viticulture, agriculture or horticulture are still run in these areas today. This ban would not lead to more biodiversity, but if the provided regulations come into force, many farms located in the protected areas would have to give up.
When we practice farming, we always interfere with nature. Farmers cultivate crops or keep livestock. They and our ancestors – because even our ancestors were certainly farmers at some point – have cultivated the soil to the extent that it can serve as a habitat for the crops. It doesn‘t matter if you grow graines, potatoes, tomatoes or grapes: All these plants have not grown here by themselves, but have been sowed or planted, and they need to be nurtured. In any case, harmful insects have to be combated, weeds eliminated and fungal diseases must be prevented if one wants to reap something. This cannot be done without pesticides. Therefore, organic farming also depends on pesticides.
These agents are defined in Regulations (EC) No 834/2007 and (EC) No 889/2008, as modified by Implementing Regulation (EU) No 2018/1584. The agents contain only active substances listed in Annex II of Regulation (EC) No 889/2008, as modified by Implementing Regulation (EU) No 2016/673. Such active substances are, for example, sulphur, azadirachtin, rapeseed oil, iron 3-phosphate, spinosad, pyrethrins, fatty acid-potassium salts, various microorganisms, copper hydroxide, etc., a list with a total of 153 A4 pages. The agents are neither protective to beneficial species, nor are they all of natural origin. They are biochemical or inorganic active substances which have the task of protecting crops and destroying diseases and pests. In order to develop a sufficient effect, however, these agents usually have to be applied more frequently and in larger quantities. An expansion of organic farming therefore results in an increase in the quantity of pesticides applied.
Apart from that, the agents are subject to the same rules as any other agents. They are pesticides that make an indispensable contribution to the production of healthy food when used properly. However, the agents approved for organic farming often cannot be used specifically against certain harmful organisms or can even accumulate in the ecosystem. For this reason, many growers have decided not to join an organic farming association because they will not be able to use the best resources for their farm with the least side effects on the ecosystem. Therefore, organic farms are just as affected by the planned restrictions on the use of pesticides as other farms.
A further demand in the draft bill is the expansion of organic farming to 50% by 2035. In Baden-Wuerttemberg, 14% of the area is currently farmed organically. It is easy to imagine that an expansion of cultivation without a corresponding increase in demand would exert enormous pressure on the price of organic food. It can be assumed that only a few, especially larger farms will be able to survive, that more food will have to be imported and that many smaller farms in Germany will have to give up.