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Helping Bees by Growing a Better Food System

By Eric Lee-Mäder on 8 July 2021
Eric Lee-Mäder

This article originally appeared in the fall 2020 edition of Xerces’ magazine, Wings. Click to view the full spring 2021 issue.

There’s a saying within the food industry that goes like this: “A supply chain is called a chain because you can only pull on it, you can’t push it.”

At the heart of this expression is the notion that consumer demand ultimately pulls along our entire food supply. The more of us who crave oat milk or avocados, the more those desires trigger a series of upstream responses on the part of food companies—responses around marketing, packaging, processing, labor, and the ways our food is grown. For example, a strong enough consumer demand for fewer pesticides in our breakfast cereal can ultimately trickle all the way back to the farms where the grain comes from, especially when consumers have a range of alternative options from which to choose.

 

An aerial view looking directly down on a farm. The upper and lower parts of the photo show rows of almond trees. Across the middle stretches a creek channel which has been planted with shrubs and flowers as habitat for pollinators.
The Xerces Society’s Bee Better Certified program rewards and celebrates growers who make their farms better for bees. Aerial view of part of a mile-long habitat corridor planted through almond orchards.  (Photo: Xerces Society / Cameron Newell.)

 

Environmental, health, and social-justice advocates have long recognized the power of this dynamic and have helped to fuel various food and farming certifications that shine a spotlight on products that align with their activist goals. When successful, certifications have the potential to increase product sales, command premium pricing, and ultimately incentivize large-scale changes in our food system. At their best, food certifications represent a net positive for everyone.

While the power of the consumer is a force we all understood at Xerces, it was never in our plans to launch our own product certification. That changed one day in 2017, when we were approached by several food-industry professionals who wanted to help create an authentic and measurable impact for pollinators within their own supply chain. At first, we entertained the conversation with a high degree of skepticism: Is this really something consumers want? Can we manage something of this scale? Do people even think about bees when they are buying groceries?

 

A bee foraging on blueberry flowers. The flowers are white and bell-shaped. The bee is black with pale brown hair on the font part of it's body. It is upside down, hanging from the opening of the flowers.
Highbush blueberries are a crop that is best pollinated by native bees. (Photo: Nancy Lee Adamson.)

 

To test the waters, we partnered with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service through their Conservation Innovation Grant program and with Oregon Tilth, a leading nationwide auditing organization that specializes in the certification of organic farms. With additional guidance from a steering committee of scientists, farmers, and food-industry stakeholders, the pieces started to fall into place.

The process turned out to be tough and time-consuming. First, we needed to define what a grower must do to be certified, a set of criteria known as the production standards. We also had to create a name and a brand that would clearly and immediately communicate how those standards—and thus our certification—helps pollinators. Moreover, we needed to develop the complex and essential business infrastructure for a farm to apply for certification through Oregon Tilth, for Xerces to manage how a food company uses the label on its packaging, and for the intricate systems of accountability to ensure that raw ingredients from certified farms are indeed going into the products that claim to be using them.

Although daunting, the process got underway, with a huge amount of support from our partners. Within the first six months, we managed to create much of the basic framework. We even had an ice cream company and a blueberry packer ask us to help their supplier farms become certified so that they could use the certification seal on their packaging. Somehow, it seemed as though the idea might actually fly.

Still, the question of a name for the certification lingered. The breakthrough came during a staff discussion, when pollinator program co-director Mace Vaughan observed that our certification “would be better for bees” than some of the unverifiable claims that we were starting to see in the marketplace. Within the alliteration of that phrase was the answer to our naming conundrum, and “be better” became “Bee Better Certified.”

With the name settled, a logo for use on product labels quickly followed—and Bee Better Certified grew quickly. Within three years, first under the leadership of Hillary Sardiñas, then Cameron Newell, more than twenty thousand acres of farmland were certified, growing crops as diverse as almonds, blueberries, cranberries, tree fruits, vegetables, wine grapes, grains, flax, and oilseeds. Products such as ice cream, vinegar, wine, and fruit with the Bee Better Certified seal began appearing in major retailers and club stores nationwide.

 

A clear plastic container of blueberries on a kitchen counter beside a breakfast bowl containing cereal and fruit. The blueberry container has the black-and-white Bee Better Certified label
Our Bee Better Certified logo now appears on a growing number of food products in grocery stores. (Photo: Matthew Shepherd.)

 

Despite occasional and inevitable setbacks, Bee Better Certified continues to expand. By early 2020 we were fielding large numbers of international inquiries, particularly from the Southern Hemisphere, where many produce companies specialize in supplying the U.S. market with fruit during our winter months. It’s possible that Bee Better Certified may end up playing as large a role in South America as it does in North America.

This growth trajectory represents a substantial conservation win. At the core of Bee Better are its standards. Certified farms are required to maintain at least 5 percent of their land base in flowering habitat for pollinators. Typically, this consists of such features as flowering field borders or hedgerows, as well as flowering cover crops. This habitat also has to be protected from pesticides, and all permanent habitat features (though not temporary cover crops) must consist of locally native plant species. Additionally, practices such as chemical soil fumigation are prohibited, as are the highest risk pesticides, such as the nitroguanidine neonicotinoids. Other specific requirements include the adoption of non-chemical pest-management practices, the reduction of tillage to protect soil invertebrates, and a prohibition against the use of commercially reared bumble bees for the pollination of field crops. This last requirement is one that we hope will limit the spread of diseases from artificially raised bumble bees into wild bee populations.

 

A group of farm workers planting shrubs and flowers beside mature oak trees. The plants are still in their pots and have been placed in rows beside black irrigation pipes ready for planting.
Creating habitat requires a significant commitment of time and resources by growers. Workers at this site in California have installed irrigation and are placing a wire cage around each plant to protect it from browsing deer. (Photo: Xerces Society / Jessa Kay Cruz.)

 

Thankfully, we’ve been able to successfully grow Bee Better Certified and now have a broad cross section of stakeholders all pulling on the supply chain together. At the consumer level, market research conducted by several universities has confirmed what we are seeing: consumers really do care about pollinators, and they are enthusiastic about supporting products that create a better food system for bees. Moreover, retailers and food companies are eager to be part of the solution. It’s easy to view companies as being single-mindedly focused on profits, but the best companies are themselves made up of consumers—people who want to eat well and feed their kids well and want to care for our planet’s ecosystems in the process. Even at the farm level we’ve been able to strike a balance between making a significant conservation impact and creating a system that doesn’t burden farmers with unrealistic expectations and massive amounts of paperwork. Critical to our success has been the presence of smart, forward-thinking farmers on the Bee Better steering committee, including Anna Jones-Crabtree, a grain grower in Montana; Andrew Dunham, an Iowa vegetable farmer; and Morgan Wolfe, from the California almond industry.

Still, even with our progress, potential challenges always loom on the horizon. Among these is the phenomenon of “beewashing”—greenwashing that uses bees to promote business operations that may not actually support pollinator conservation. For example, there are “self-certification” programs that allow farmers or food companies to simply fill out a superficial application, pay a fee, and receive certification, without an independent auditor actually verifying that they are doing what they claim. Such dubious accreditations muddy the waters and are difficult to navigate for even the best-intentioned consumers.

Another challenge is simply the ever-growing number of claims that are made for grocery products. A trip to the store reveals a huge list of options: organic, grass-fed, free-range, dolphin-safe, biodynamic, non-GMO, fair-trade, heart-healthy, pasture-raised, zero trans fats, and scores of others. Many of these claims—“all-natural,” for instance—can be essentially meaningless and are not actually certifications in any legitimate sense of the word. Real claims, those that have substance, are backed by specific criteria that are independently audited and verified for accuracy, such as “USDA Organic.”

Like beewashing, one predictable outcome of this welter of product claims is public confusion about what they all mean. This in turn can lead to the phenomenon we refer to as “certification fatigue”—apathy and a feeling of indifference toward the numerous assertions competing for public attention.

 

Under a clear blue sky, the bright yellow flowers of balsamroot show between the vines in this vineyard.
Some Bee Better Certified growers integrate habitat fully through their cropped areas. This vineyard in Washington state allows prairie plants to grow around and under its vines. (Photo: Xerces Society / Liz Robertson.)

 

Despite such challenges, legitimate product certifications remain among the best tools that consumers have for understanding how to pull the supply chain in a direction that improves our food system for people and bees alike. Our hope is that consumers keep the faith and continue to use their significant collective power. With that in mind, a few strategies can help identify which product certifications are fostering authentic change.

First, the best product certifications, such as USDA Organic—and Bee Better Certified!—have a set of standards that are publicly accessible and that describe in detail the exact requirements that need to be fulfilled for certification.

Second, good certification systems operate under the direct, transparent oversight of diverse stakeholders. In the case of USDA Organic, the program is guided by the National Organic Standards Board, a committee of farmers, scientists, food-industry professionals, and environmentalists who advise on any changes to certification criteria and work to ensure the integrity of organic certification. Similarly, with Bee Better Certified, oversight is provided by a steering committee of Xerces conservationists, university-based pollinator researchers, farmers, and food-industry professionals.

Finally, consumers need to be aware that any certification without independent third-party auditing and inspection isn’t really certification at all. Most of us would not be comfortable with an automobile manufacturer certifying for itself the safety of its vehicles. We’d prefer to have an independent organization test their cars’ brakes to ensure that they actually work. We should expect no less from claims made by a food or beverage company that its products are helping our planet’s biodiversity.

A lot of us frequently point to the failings of our food system: its environmental impact, its over-production of unhealthy options, its abuse and neglect of the people and animals upon which it is built. But it is also a system of our own making. Author and food-system observer Michael Pollan has noted that “perhaps more than any other, the food industry is very sensitive to consumer demand.” Pointing out the failings of our food system is easy, while pulling the chain in a different direction takes more work. But it is an effort well justified by the end results, and in which we can all participate with the power of our wallets.

 

Further Reading

Read the entire spring 2021 issue of Wings.

Learn more about Bee Better Certified.

Find out how to become Bee Better Certified.

Frequently asked questions about Bee Better Certified.

 

Authors

As Pollinator Program Co-Director, Eric manages staff focused on large-scale habitat restoration, conservation biocontrol, native seed research and development, and outreach to farmers, private businesses, and government agencies. His professional background includes commercial beekeeping, native seed production, and consulting for various specialty crop industries.

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