It’s National Pollinator Week, a time to celebrate all the living creatures who help humans grow crops. The Non-GMO Project uses a butterfly logo because pollinators are important to our shared food system and because we recognize the many human-caused problems they face. All humans rely on pollinators in order to eat! Pollinators are a bellwether of change and threats to their existence represent a larger threat to all of us.
Our friends at Wedderspoon use a bee to represent their honey for the same reason. From climate change and habitat loss to the use of pesticides like neonicotinoids, it’s crucial we all recognize the impact, negative or positive, that we can have on the vitality of honeybees and their colonies. Join the Non-GMO Project and Wedderspoon to learn more about the importance of pollinators!
What Is Pollination?
Flowers are the mechanism that flowering plants use to make seeds and reproduce. Flowers have anthers (sometimes called “male” structures) and stigma (sometimes called “female” structures). Flowering plants cannot reproduce unless pollen (which is analogous to sperm in mammals) from their own species reaches the stigma. Some crops, including wheat, can be pollinated by the wind without help from animals. Most plants cannot be pollinated in this way—they need pollinators!
We All Need Pollinators.
A pollinator is any animal that moves pollen from the anthers to the stigma. This process fertilizes the plant, allowing it to form seeds. Nearly every flowering plant on Earth relies on help from pollinators such as butterflies, beetles, birds, bats, and more than 16,000 different species of bees. Snails, lizards, honey possums, and even lemurs can also be pollinators.
Pollinators help fertilize more than 1,200 crops, including 87 of the 115 crops most commonly eaten by humans. Roughly 35 percent of human food requires pollinators, so the conversation about feeding a growing population has to begin with pollinator health—not GMOs. The biotech industry has long been trying to convince consumers that we need GMOs to feed the world, but they have not delivered on promises of increased yield, increased nutrition, or any other trait that would increase food availability in the real world. Besides, if we don’t protect our pollinators, we won’t even have seeds for the future.
Human survival aside, there is a strong economic argument to be made for the preservation of pollinators. Pollinators do useful work that adds value to crops. It is estimated that pollinators are responsible for adding $24 billion to the United States economy—more than $15 billion of that comes directly from honey bees through their pollination. We all need pollinators.
Cross-Pollination Ensures Genetic Diversity
There are different types of pollination. Self-pollination occurs when plants fertilize themselves with or without help from pollinators. This occurs when pollen is transferred from the anther to the stigma on the same plant. In this case, the seeds produced only contain genetic material from a single parent plant, so the offspring will look just like the parent plant.
Cross-pollination occurs when pollen from one plant is transferred to the female part of another plant in the same species. This can occur between two plants of the same variety (e.g., two cauliflowers) or between different varietals within the same species (e.g., cauliflower and broccoli).
Cross-pollination cannot occur between different species. To draw an analogy, a chihuahua couldn’t reproduce with a cat, but it could reproduce with a golden retriever because these dogs are varieties within the same species. Cross-pollination between different varieties is how hybrid crops are made. It’s also how we have ended up with a wide variety of crops within the same species—this is why there are more than 7,500 types of apples, for example. This traditional breeding technique has been used for centuries to create many of the modern crops on which we depend.
GMOs and Cross-Pollination: There’s No Stopping Contamination
Some GMO crops can cross-pollinate, which means they are able to spread their genetic information to other crops. For example, all varieties of corn can be bred together. If one farmer is growing GMO corn near another farmer’s non-GMO corn, pollinators could contaminate the non-GMO corn with pollen from that GMO corn. The resulting seeds would contain genetic information from both parent plants. If those seeds were to be planted, the resulting crops could put the farmer who planted them at risk for patent infringement or loss of Organic status.
This type of GMO contamination can occur between wildly different varieties, too. For example, nearly all sugar beets are genetically modified, but there isn’t any GMO Swiss chard. Sugar beets and Swiss chard are both part of the Beta vulgaris family, so it is possible for sugar beets to contaminate swiss chard, table beets, and other related crops that aren’t usually genetically modified.
Once GMOs are released into the environment, they can’t be recalled. There is no way to pull every plant, every seed, and every bit of pollen back into a laboratory. Contamination events spanning decades and national borders demonstrate this. There have been many cases where test crops that were never supposed to reach a field have been found growing very far from where they were first tested. This is often due to pollinators and pollen drift.
GMO contamination affects apiculture (bee-derived) products as well. You can’t start with pollen or nectar from a genetically modified crop and end up with honey that isn’t derived from GMOs. Whether it comes from clover, manuka, or something else entirely, honey and other inputs from bees must come from bees who eat a non-GMO diet in order to attain Non-GMO Project verification. This means their entire four-mile foraging area needs to be sufficiently free of GMO agriculture. Some beekeepers supplement their bees with other feed; this feed needs to be non-GMO as well.
You Can Help Pollinators
We all know pollinator populations are declining—the problem is so widely acknowledged that the Obama Administration even launched a program designed to promote pollinator health. You can help; join the Non-GMO Project and Wedderspoon in doing something kind for pollinators this week.
- Plant pollinator-friendly gardens. Don’t forget to include ground cover for caterpillars; young pollinators need protection too.
- Make a bee house! The Non-GMO Project crew made three to celebrate National Pollinator Week.
- Avoid neonicotinoids. Growing bodies of evidence link these insecticides to honey bee death.
- Demand action from the EPA—compliance with the Endangered Species Act is critically important.
- Learn about other ways you can help pollinators on Wedderspoon’s website.