Major U.S. Grocery Stores Step Up to Save the Bees, But Are They Doing Enough?

This year, U.S. beekeepers reported that 45 percent of their colonies died, that’s the second highest losses ever recorded. And a new study showed that 25 percent of wild bees have gone missing since the 1990s.

Why are bees dying? Along with climate change and habitat loss, the toxic pesticides used to grow our food are one of the main drivers. In fact, U.S. agriculture is now 48 times more toxic to bees since we started using a type of pesticide called neonicotinoids in the 1990s.

This should raise alarm bells for grocery stores since approximately one in three bites of food they sell depends on pollinators. There would be no apple pie, no tomato sauce for pizza, no coffee for a morning pick-me-up without pollinators. Even the dairy and meat cases at the grocery store would look bare since bees pollinate alfalfa and other crops eaten by cows. In fact, research shows that pollinator declines have already decreased production of delicious U.S. crops like apples and cherries.

This year’s Bee-Friendly Retailer Scorecard from Friends of the Earth reveals that some of the largest U.S. grocery stores are beginning to take action to protect bees from toxic pesticides.

Giant Eagle, a grocery chain on the east coast, jumped to first place on the scorecard as the only major U.S. food retailer to commit to begin reducing pesticide use. The company will eliminate use of the most harmful neonicotinoids in its produce supply chain by 2025. These chemicals—imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and dinotefuran—have been banned in the EU but are still allowed in the U.S.

To help ensure that produce growers don’t swap neonics for other toxic chemicals, Giant Eagle is also requiring them to use ecological farming methods known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and to aim to avoid a list of dozens of other pesticides that are highly toxic to pollinators.  IPM can reduce use of pesticides by guiding farmers to use non-chemical approaches to manage pests first, such as rotating crops, planting resistant varieties and fostering beneficial insects.

This April, Walmart also stepped up with a leading pollinator policy. By 2025, 100 percent of Walmart’s global produce supply will be certified for Integrated Pest Management. Growers will be required to achieve one of a list of vetted third-party certifications that have meaningful IPM criteria.

Other companies got high marks because of their commitment to organic food. Research shows that organic farming can help reverse pollinator declines and can support up to 50 percent more pollinating species than conventional agriculture. Just two of the largest U.S. grocers—Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s—have met the goal set by Friends of the Earth to expand organic offerings to 15 percent of overall sales by 2025.

Three other companies—Meijer, Target, and Dollar Tree, improved their scores by establishing new pollinator health policies this year. The policies all encourage suppliers to reduce or eliminate neonicotinoids and other concerning pesticides and to shift to less-toxic methods of farming.

Despite this important momentum, these actions still fall far short of what is needed to truly protect pollinators and all of us from toxic pesticides. Stronger market leadership is critical because our federal pesticide policy system is broken. U.S. agriculture uses more than 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides annually, representing approximately 15 percent of total global pesticide usage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows use of over 70 pesticides that are banned in other countries. And the EPA approved over 100 new pesticide products containing ingredients widely deemed to be highly hazardous between 2017-2018. Meanwhile, the five largest pesticide manufacturers —Bayer, Corteva, FMC , BASF, and Syngenta—reap billions in profit from pesticides known to be highly toxic to bees and people.

In the absence of federal action, the grocery stores that sell our food have a major role to play in moving from pesticide-intensive agriculture to the organic and regenerative food system that we need. They certainly have the market power to do so, the four largest alone—Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, and Costco—controlled US$924 billion in grocery sales last year.

New polling shows that Americans think grocery stores should be part of the solution. Seventy-four percent said they believe grocery stores should support efforts to protect pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, and 83 percent believe it is important to eliminate pesticides that are harmful to pollinators from agriculture.

This would also be a huge win for human health since many of the same pesticides that threaten pollinators can also disrupt and derail the healthy functioning of our bodies. Pesticide exposure is linked to cancers, asthma, neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and ADHD, and to adult neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Exposure is also associated with reproductive disorders like infertility and other disorders related to the hormone system.

We have proven ecological solutions in the farming sector that can grow healthy, abundant food while protecting pollinators, contributing to climate solutions, and bolstering farmers’ bottom line. Major U.S. grocery stores are among the biggest buyers of food produced with toxic pesticides. It is time that they implement policies that reflect the interrelated biodiversity and climate crises we’re facing and support a rapid transition to the ecological food system of the future.

For the full analysis and findings click here.

Photo courtesy of Arthur Yao, Unsplash

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