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Biodiversity, business and bees

How can you spot future-fit farming? Look for the bees. Over the last ten years, we’ve been working with farmers and smallholders, finding ways both to protect biodiversity and to secure our supply chains. Here’s why.

When it comes to pollination, nothing beats the humble bumble bee.

Fertilising a third of the food we eat and 80% of flowering plants, bees and other pollinating insects have a global economic value of around £120 billion (€141 billion).

For Unilever, almonds, tomatoes and mustard seeds are just some of the hundreds of bee-dependent crops essential to our business.

Ensuring our farms are future fit means empowering farmers and smallholders in our supply chain to protect and regenerate the land they are cultivating through agricultural practices that have a positive effect on soil health, water and air quality, carbon capture and biodiversity.

Which is where bees come in. As an indicator species for the health of the ecosystems they live in, their presence, or absence, will indicate just how much impact these regenerative agricultural practices are making. If bees are flourishing, then so are the natural habitats in which they live.

Beehives in a field

"We have thousands of supply chains and hundreds of crop species that depend on pollination That is why, over the last decade, we have been committed to finding nature-led solutions that protect biodiversity."

Andrea Granier, Sustainable Sourcing Manager at Unilever.

Bees are in trouble

Increasingly, however, bees are not flourishing. Habitat loss and pollution are just a few factors contributing to the collapse of bee populations around the world. And they are not alone. Close to 35% of invertebrate pollinators, including bees and butterflies, and about 17% of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats, face extinction globally.

“We have thousands of supply chains and hundreds of crop species that depend on pollination,” says Andrea Granier, Sustainable Sourcing Manager at Unilever. “That is why, over the last decade, we have been committed to finding nature-led solutions that protect biodiversity.”

Small projects with huge potential

It is also why Unilever created the Regenerative Agriculture Principles: a new approach to farming that works in harmony with nature to ensure the long-term viability and resilience of the earth’s biodiversity.

The principles highlight the five priority areas where we can achieve the biggest impact: soil, water, carbon, livelihoods and biodiversity.

The principles are built on the learnings from a decade of experience working to protect bees and biodiversity, and provide the foundations for future regenerative agriculture projects.

“Until now we have worked on testing methods and ideas with suppliers,” says Andrea. “We have a huge diversity of crops in a multitude of landscapes and geographies in our supply chain, so we have had to work on small-scale projects that are adapted to each case. These have allowed us to discover nature-led systems that work.

“Thanks to this work, we are now ready to work at scale. In many ways, our work with bees offers a bridge between what we have been doing and what we will do in the future,” he adds.

As Unilever’s biggest food brand, Knorr’s Partnership Fund has been leading the way – supporting farmers to invest in sustainable solutions. To date there are over 20 projects in 11 countries, involving 2,300 hectares of land and representing an investment of €347,000.

Here are some of the future fit projects that are already making a difference.

Colman’s mustard, UK

Bee on mustard flower

Like 80% of flowering plants, the white mustard we use to make Colman’s mustards depends on pollinators. So when a survey revealed gaps in the availability of nectar during late spring and early autumn in our suppliers’ fields in England, Unilever partnered with the English Mustard Growers organisation to plant 500 bee-friendly hedges and spring-flowering bulbs.

“Having the farmers collaborate on this project means they are able to analyse their land holistically, benefiting pollinators on a much larger scale,” says Giulia Stellari, Unilever’s Director of Sustainable Sourcing. “This will also help secure the supply of crops used in our Colman’s English mustard and therefore its provenance, as well as support our wider ecosystem and biodiversity.”

D. Nomikos tomatoes, Greece

D.Nomikos Tomatoes in Greece

Agricultural intensification is a major factor in the decline of the global bee population. D. Nomikos, our tomato supplier in Greece, is working to attract more pollinators. To this end, ten farmers in Thessaly have agreed to plant bee-friendly flower borders around their tomato fields, and to position nests in such a way as to attract more birds that feed on crop-harming insects. “This is the future of farming,” says tomato farmer, Akrivousis Alexandros.

Knorr vegetables, France

Grey Partridge

Ecosystems are delicate. Take one element out of the chain and the whole system ceases to flourish. In our suppliers’ vegetable fields in Marchais in northern France, for example, farming has depleted the wildflower population, leading to a loss of pollinators. It has also led to reduction of insects which grey partridges depend on for food, leading to a 44% reduction in their population. To help remedy this situation, we have been working with five of our partners and planting 2.85 hectares of flower strips around the vegetable fields in order rebalance the ecosystem and attract pollinators, insects and the wildlife that depends on them.

Bee hotel created by Agraz, Spain

Bee hotel in Agraz, Spain

Intensive agriculture and the use of pesticides had led to a decrease in useful insects such as bees.

In order to make their tomato farm more attractive to pollinators and other insects, our tomato supplier, Agraz, based in Badajoz in south-west Spain, installed ‘bug hotels’. Made from twigs, leaves and branches, they offer the perfect shelter for insects, encouraging them to stay on the farm, pollinate and keep the pests at bay.

“In addition to improving the pollination process because of the increase in bees, the hotels have also attracted other beneficial insects to our farms, which has reduced the need for pesticides,” says Jose Manuel Esteban, Sustainability Manager at Agraz.