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Bee-lines: Series 3 Number 2 - Bees in a post-referendum countryside

April 24, 2017

Our bees and other pollinators and more widely, the animals and plants in our countryside know nothing of the June 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. They don’t know that it took place nor the outcome, nor the ongoing ramifications, arguments, hopes and fears. Nonetheless there may be implications for wildlife and beekeepers.

The drivers of change will almost certainly be found in the interplay between:

  •  Changes to food and farming policy as the UK finds its way starting with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and moving to something else of our own choosing

  • Environmental Regulation including responses to pollution and climate change

  • Farmer and landowner attitudes, fears and ambitions

  • Agricultural economics including cost of inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides due to world prices and UK exchange rate

  • Labour availability

  • Food policy and the power exerted by food manufacturers and supermarkets

  • Changes in the relative amounts of UK food imports and exports

  • Public opinion

  • Political point scoring

  • Changes in the EU including CAP that occur as and after we leave

Messy isn’t it. Many of these factors would have been at play in our countryside even if we had not had a referendum or the result had been different. So what is new?
We have what some will call uncertainty and others will call opportunity. The potential for change and doing things differently is what we really have. The complexity of the interplay between the factors listed abide, the negotiations with the EU, domestic politics and national and international commercial interests will all serve to drag things out and change may occur slowly – frustratingly slowly perhaps. It is likely that what the referendum has done is to create a previously non-existent bend or junction in the road that will lead to changes in policies affecting the countryside and its human and non-human residents. Predicting now or analysing later exactly what part each of the factors will or has contributed to changes will doubtless provide endless material for philosophical debate and disagreement – nothing new there.
So as beekeepers why should all of this be of interest to us and what can we do about it? Our narrow interest is in the wellbeing of our bees, some may say improving the wellbeing of our bees compared with the current state of things. Our wider interest relates to the fact that many beekeepers live in or close to countryside where agriculture or other major land use occurs and affects our own wellbeing. We may also include in our wider interests our love of nature and wildlife, the production and quality of our food, the future prospects for our children, grandchildren and as yet unborn generations. So that is a very long list of factors and concerns that will be shaped by the process and eventual outcomes of our leaving the EU. Taking factors affecting change together with the list of our concerns as beekeepers what sense can we try to make of it all?
First we need to manage our expectations and then set off with hope and ambition. Regarding expectations one thing seems clear to me. Change will be resisted, policy changes will be complex, money will be at the heart of much of the debate. The pace of any change will initially be determined by the negotiations with the EU. The pace will then be determined by UK interests including farming and other lobbies, budget constraints and any new trading relations that we are able to make with countries outside the EU. But make no mistake environmental issues including pollution and climate change will run at an international level and affect us no matter what local arguments we may get into. So that was about managing our expectations.
What about setting off with hope and ambition? I may not like the path that policy affecting food and farming, the countryside and wildlife has taken since my childhood. Hindsight allows me to be a smart so and so and say we should not have done that or allowed that to be imposed on us. I’ll resist being a smart so and so except to say that change has happened and it was in large measure the result of policy decisions both local and international related to food and farming. So setting off with hope and ambition is about recognising the importance of contributing to debate and exerting our influence through knowledge and imagination in the shaping of future policy. Leaving the EU is without doubt a once in a life time event (the bend or junction in the road) so as beekeepers how can we influence the journey after this bend or junction in the road? 
I claim no monopoly on relevant or good ideas about future policies affecting the countryside. My offering here is based upon my reflections and is intended only to encourage wider reflection and courage to speak up for our bees and other wildlife, tempered as said before by the expectation that some changes may be slow but the direction is what matters. So here goes with hope and ambition. I hope that when my grandchildren look back (like me over 60 years of change in the countryside) they mark 2016 as the year when things began to change and say that these were some of the policies that caused those changes:

Farming subsidies based upon simple area of land farmed gave way to payments for measurable
increases in biodiversity in the soil, hedgerows, ditches, field margins, pastures, trees and crops.

  • Encouragement for investments in sustainable infrastructure extended beyond buildings and tree planting to include the carbon capital in the soil. By this I mean that farmers were rewarded for increased soil fertility and less dependence upon artificial fertilisers derived from oil.

  • Token actions to leave field margins for wild flowers and insect life were critically examined. (My current experience in this regard, based on walking designated footpaths that follow routes along field margins, is that in all cases that I have seen all that happens is the growth of sparse grass and a few rather rank weeds. Mostly bare soil. No bees or butterflies).

  • Agricultural policies long based upon a post WW2 cheap food policy were revised through penalties on food waste from farm to fork, where intensive farming denudes biodiversity and creates food so cheap that 40% food waste had become a cultural norm.

  • Formal policies limiting the ability of supermarkets to reject farm produce at short notice.

  • Pesticide regulation moved from traditional lab based LD50(1) toxicity (effectiveness) testing to include field testing to determine the effects on insects and birds of sub-lethal doses which impact critical animal behaviours which may lead to reduced populations or extermination.

  • Improved bio security related to imported products, agricultural, horticultural, livestock, forestry and non-living materials.

These are the personal thoughts of a hopeful and ambitious traveller. Good luck to future generations of bees and beekeepers.

(1) In toxicology, the median lethal dose, LD50 (abbreviation for "lethal dose, 50%"), LC50 (lethal concentration, 50%) or LCt50 is a measure of the lethal dose of a toxin, radiation, or pathogen. The value of LD50 for a substance is the dose required to kill half the members of a tested population after a specified test duration. LD50 figures are frequently used as a general indicator of a substance's acute toxicity. A lower LD50 is indicative of increased toxicity.

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