When the Caribbean state was no longer able to afford pesticides – which have been linked with declining bee populations – it made a virtue out of a necessity
Long known for its cigars and rum, Cuba has added organic honey to its list of key agricultural exports, creating a buzz among farmers as pesticide use has been linked to declining bee populations elsewhere.
Organic honey has become Cuba’s fourth most valuable agricultural export behind fish products, tobacco and drinks, but ahead of the Caribbean island’s more famous sugar and coffee, said Theodor Friedrich, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) representative for Cuba.
“All of [Cuba’s] honey can be certified as organic,” Friedrich told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Its honey has a very specific, typical taste; in monetary value, it’s a high-ranking product.“
After the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, the island was unable to afford pesticides due to a lack of foreign currency, coupled with the US trade embargo. By necessity, the government embraced organic agriculture, and the policies have largely stuck.
Now that the United States is easing its embargo following the restoration of diplomatic ties last year, Cuba’s organic honey exporters could see significant growth if the government supports the industry, bee keepers said.
Cuba produced more than 7,200 tonnes of organic honey in 2014, worth about $23.3m, according to government statistics cited by the FAO.
The country’s industry is still tiny compared with honey heavyweights such as China, Turkey and Argentina. But with a commodity worth more per litre than oil, Cuban honey producers believe they could be on the verge of a lucrative era.
With 80 boxes swarming with bees, each producing 45kg (100lb) of honey a year, farm manager Javier Alfonso believes Cuba’s exports could grow markedly in the coming years.
His apiary, down a dirt track in San Antonio de los Baños, a farming town an hour’s drive from the capital, Havana, was built from scratch by employees, Alfonso said.
“There is just a bit of production now, but it can get bigger,” he said, looking at the rows of colourful wooden boxes.
Like other Cuban bee farmers, he sells honey exclusively to the government, which pays him according to the world market price and then takes responsibility for marketing the product overseas.
Most of Cuba’s honey exports go to Europe, he said. He would like to be able to borrow money to expand production, but getting credit is difficult, he said, so for now his team of farmers build their own infrastructure for the bees.
“It’s a very natural environment here,” said Raul Vásquez, a farm employee. “The government is not allowed to sell us chemicals – this could be the reason why the bees aren’t dying here” as they have been in other places.
While Cuba’s small, organic honey industry aims to reap the rewards of increased trade with the United States, honey producers in other regions are under threat, industry officials said.
Bee keepers in the United States, Canada and other regions have long complained that pesticides are responsible for killing their bees and hurting the honey industry more broadly.
The US Environmental Protection Agency released a study in January indicating that a widely used insecticide used on cotton plants and citrus groves can harm bee populations.
“I don’t think there are any doubts that populations of honeybees [in the United States and Europe] have declined … since the second world war,” Norman Carreck, science director of the UK-based International Bee Research Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Climate change, fewer places for wild bees to nest, shifts in land use, diseases and pesticides are blamed for the decline, he said.
Because it is pesticide-free, Cuba’s organic bee industry could act as protection from the problems hitting other honey exporters, said the FAO’s Friedrich, and could be a growing income stream for the island’s farmers.
“The overall use of pesticides is fairly controlled, he said. “Cuba has been immune to the bee die-offs [hitting other regions].”
Seventeen of the UK’s leading wildlife, conservation and environment groups are calling for the current EU restrictions on neonicotinoid insecticides to be retained – and extended to all crops – to ‘protect Britain’s bees’.
In an open letter to the UK government, the organisations say “it is clear that there is now more than enough evidence to retain the ban and extend it to all crops, and that this is essential to reverse the decline of bees and other pollinators.”
The EU restrictions, which ban the use of three neonicotinoids on flowering crops, is due to be reviewed next year. The ban was introduced in 2013 after European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the chemicals posed a ‘high acute risk’ to honey bees.
In the letter, the organisations – which include Friends of the Earth, RSPB, Greenpeace, The Wildlife Trusts, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation and Bat Conservation Trust – say: “Since 2013 many more independent laboratory and field studies have found neonics impairing the ability of different bee species to feed, navigate and reproduce resulting in declining populations.
“The government says it will not hesitate to act on evidence of harm. The third anniversary of the neonics restrictions is Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom’s chance to catch up with scientific evidence and public opinion by keeping and extending the ban as part of properly protecting Britain’s bees and pollinating insects.”
Farmers access to right inputs ‘crucial’
In a debate on crop protection at CropTec 2016 this week, National Farmers Union chief crops adviser Guy Gagen said farmers need to be ready to talk to the public about crop protection products, and to emphasise the work farmers to do for the environment and to promote biodiversity on their farm.
The NFU has been meeting with both domestic and European politicians, Defra government officials and stakeholders to deliver the message that it is ‘crucial’ that farmers have access to the right inputs so their farm businesses can be ‘competitive, profitable and progressive’.
Mr Gagen stressed the importance of increasing public awareness around the use of crop protection products, such as pesticides, underlining their importance to farm businesses.
He said: “We still have to deal with regulatory pressures coming through the EU, these are not going away and without key products, the situation for farmers could become very serious, very quickly.
“There are simple, but effective, measures available to promote biodiversity and protect water such as keeping slug pellets and herbicides out of the water and participation in stewardship schemes such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.”
Agriculture experts from the University of Hertfordshire have said key crop protection products, such as pesticides, play an important role in ensuring food is safe and healthy for the world’s population. Global food production could fall by as much as 35-40 per cent without them, the scientists warn.
‘Dozens of new studies’
Three of the UK’s leading bee experts have said that the scientific case against the use of the three pesticides has grown over the past three years, and that the restrictions should continue and be extended to other crops.
Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Sussex University, said that three years ago, EFSA’s analysis of the scientific evidence concluded that neonicotinoids ‘pose an unacceptable risk to bees’.
“Since then dozens of new studies from around the world have been published, including a major Swedish field trial in which neonicotinoids were shown to impact profoundly on bumblebee colonies and solitary bees.
“Work from Italy has showed that even tiny doses of neonicotinoids impair the immune system of honeybees, rendering them susceptible to infections. Perhaps more concerning, it has become clear that neonicotinoids are persistent and pervasive in the environment, so that soils, wildflowers, ponds and rivers commonly contain significant levels.
He said: “This widespread pollution of the environment with these potent neurotoxins has now been linked not just to bee declines but also to declines in butterflies, aquatic insects, and insect-eating birds. With farmland wildlife populations in free fall, it is surely time to extend the moratorium on neonicotinoids to cover other uses.”
Open letter in full
December 1st marks the third anniversary of the introduction of Europe-wide restrictions on three neonicotinoid pesticides – often known as ‘neonics’ – after they were found by scientists to pose a “high acute risk” to honeybees.
It is clear that there is now more than enough evidence to retain the ban and extend it to all crops, and that this is essential to reverse the decline of bees and other pollinators.
Since 2013 many more independent laboratory and field studies have found neonics impairing the ability of different bee species to feed, navigate and reproduce resulting in declining populations.
There is now solid evidence of harm from neonics to wild bumble and solitary bees which are even more sensitive to these pesticides than honeybees. Evidence has also grown of neonics harming the wider environment with studies indicating a link to butterfly population decline, identifying risks to bird species and finding neonics accumulating to dangerous levels in wildflowers surrounding crops.
2017 will be a crucial year for decisions on bees as scientists will publish the official review of the evidence of harm to bees from the three restricted neonicotinoids.
The government says it will not hesitate to act on evidence of harm. The third anniversary of the neonics restrictions is Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom’s chance to catch up with scientific evidence and public opinion by keeping and extending the ban as part of properly protecting Britain’s bees and pollinating insects.
Craig Bennett, Chief Executive, Friends of the Earth
Dr Jeremy Biggs, Director, Freshwater Habitats Trust
Pauline Buchanan Black, Director General, The Tree Council
Kath Dalmeny, Chief Executive, Sustain
Martin Harper, Conservation Director, RSPB
Heidi Herrmann, Co-Founder, Natural Beekeeping Trust
Dr Maggie Keegan, Head of Policy, Scottish Wildlife Trust
Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive, Angling Trust & Fish Legal
Peter Melchett, Policy Director, Soil Association
John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace UK
Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive, Buglife
Kit Stoner, Chief Executive, Bat Conservation Trust
Steve Trent, Executive Director, Environmental Justice Foundation
Steve Trotter, Director, The Wildlife Trusts
Dr Keith Tyrell, Director, Pesticides Action Network
Dr Martin Warren, Chief Executive, Butterfly Conservation
Catherine Weller, Head of Biodiversity Programme, ClientEarth