Across India’s agrarian plains, plantations and orchards, millions of birds, bats and insects toil to pollinate crops. However, many of these thousands of species may be in dangerous decline.
In 2015, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that pollinators lead to huge agricultural economic gains. The report estimated pollinator contribution in India to be $0.831-1.5 billion annually for just six vegetable crops. This is an underestimation considering that nearly 70% of tropical crop species are dependent on pollinators for optimal yields.
The decline of moths, bees , butterflies, hoverflies and other pollinators is undeniably linked to human activity: large tracts of natural habitats have been cleared for monoculture cultivation, while the use of pesticides and fertilisers is pushing out nature’s little helpers. In a series of studies at the University of Calcutta, researchers have showed that native Indian bees, when exposed to multiple pesticides, suffer from memory and olfactory impairment, lower response rates, and oxidative stress which damages cells. Parthiba Basu and his team estimated that between 1964 and 2008, there was a 40-60% growth in relative yields of pollinator-dependent crops, while pollinator-independent crops such as cereals and potatoes saw a corresponding 140% rise in yields. In Kashmir, researchers have pinned lowering yields of apple trees on the declining frequency of bee visits. In north India, lowering yields of mustard cultivation may be caused by disappearing pollinators.
At the turn of the millennium, many countries, particularly the U.S., observed with some anxiety the phenomenon of bees deserting their hives. By 2014-15, the U.S. had established a Pollinator Health Task Force and a national strategy that focussed on increasing the monarch butterfly population and planting native species and flowers in more than 28,000 sq km to attract pollinators. Around the same time, the U.K. developed 23 key policy actions under its National Pollinator Strategy. Meanwhile, after the IPBES report, almost 20 countries have joined the Coalition of the Willing on Pollinators.
Apart from promoting organic farming and lowering pesticide usage, landscape management is key. The EU Pollinators’ Initiative adopted in June can provide pointers to India, particularly a policy of direct payment support to farmers to provide buffer strips for pollinators for nectar- and pollen-rich plants. India has millions of hectares of reserve forests, some of which have been converted to pulpwood plantations. Much of this can be restored to become thriving homes for pollinators. The same can be done in gram panchayat levels. Fallow areas and government land can be used to plant flowering species for pollinators.
The writer is a Principal Correspondent at The Hindu’s Bengaluru bureau