Mark Gough on how the new Natural Capital Protocol can help companies protect pollinators

All businesses fundamentally rely on the natural world in order to operate and thrive. Some of these dependencies are complex, little understood and far removed from daily operations, but there are other “ecosystem services” that have been well understood for many decades. One example is the dependence of global agriculture on pollinating insects, especially bees.

In 1862, Charles Darwin, building on the work of the 17th-century physician and botanist Rudolf Jakob Camerarius, published The Various Contrivances by which Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects. In this work, Darwin not only demonstrated that pollinating insects were absolutely central to the process of plant fertilisation, but he further hypothesised that plants and insects were symbiotic and highly coordinated partners, who had evolved side-by-side over a vast number of generations, to the point of co-dependency.

To Darwin, this idea was so intuitive that, on inspecting a Madagascan orchid with a foot-long tubular separating its nectar from the outside world, he was confident that an insect with a foot-long tongue, or “proboscis”, must exist in order to pollinate it, a claim that was largely ridiculed by leading entomologists.

Darwin was exonerated in 1907, when Morgan's sphinx moth, a moth boasting a 30cm long proboscis, was collected in Madagascar. This moth was only observed feeding from the orchid in 1992, almost 150 years after Darwin’s hypothesis.

Morgan's sphinx moth has a 30cm long proboscis

Need for a framework

This example demonstrates that the co-dependency of plants and insects is so clear that we only need examine a plant in order to know (with relative certainty) the existence of an insect capable of pollinating it. 

We now know that we not only depend on bees and other insects to fertilise the vast majority of our crops, but we’re also seriously affecting their ability to do so successfully with practices such as the cultivation of monocultures, the destruction of habitats and the use of toxic pesticides.

However, even when a business has a good conceptual understanding of the impacts and dependencies on this natural capital (as all farmers do), this information alone is often not enough to allow it to successfully address these issues in the absence of a standardized framework to guide it.

Some businesses may take the line that it's not up to them to mitigate such effects, and is instead the responsibility of governments or NGOs. Others may wish to take action, but struggle to convince managers or shareholders that they would create value for the business.

In order to convince the unconvinced and support those who are stuck but on side, we must connect the impact that businesses have on the natural world to the benefit that they receive from it.

This is one aim of the Natural Capital Protocol, a newly released globally standardised framework that allows organisations to identify, measure and value both direct and indirect impacts and dependencies on natural capital, such as pollinating insects. The protocol enables businesses to gain a more complete understanding of their relationships to the natural world, and to use this information to make more informed operational and strategic decisions that benefit business, biodiversity and the biosphere.

Need for a framework

Some farmers in the US are now paying up to $900,000 each year to truck artificial beehives (often from out of state) on to their fields, as local populations drop below the levels necessary for effective service provision. Apart from anything else, this is incredibly bad for business, adding vast costs for services that have traditionally been provided for free. Again, while the farmers of course realise this, they’re often at a loss at how to take action to protect and enhance these services.

US farmers are buying in beehives

What they need are tools and a framework to identify and measure the value that is provided to their operations by pollinating insects like bees. Once they have accurate information, these services can be included in their overall strategy and business model. 

So, an application of the protocol in this instance may lead to farmers spraying less pesticide in certain fields or at certain times of the year; it may involve the designation of fields as wildflower meadows, or maintaining local beehives year-round as opposed to trucking them in from out of state.

For the average business, solutions like this are only possible if they can be shown to be benefiting the bottom line. In simple terms, if we know that a farmer pays $900,000 to transport bees to their farm, and any of the aforementioned solutions result in a net gain to the farmer, (say converting a field into a meadow provides the same levels of pollination and has a net cost of $600,000 per year), then suddenly there is a business case for creating wild habitats.

What the protocol does is to provide guidance around these types of questions, and help generate trusted, credible, and actionable information to inform business decisions. This in turn can help to identify solutions that conserve and enhance the natural world that we all depend upon for thriving societies and prosperous economies.

Mark Gough is executive director of the Natural Capital Coalition

bees  agriculture  Natural Capital Protocol  biodiversity 

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