Intensive agriculture – intensive debate

Pollinator health and sustainable agriculture in Belgium and the Netherlands

In Belgium and the Netherlands, there is a high environmental awareness. Citizens expect the agricultural sector to not only produce sufficient and healthy food at acceptable prices, they also want this to be done in an attractive-looking, rural area fit for recreation, to enjoy leisure and value nature. With this, the task of managing the agricultural land has become broader. This article demonstrates Bayer’s commitment to sustainable agriculture, showing a variety of activities and initiatives in Belgium and the Netherlands to enhance crop pollination and safeguard pollinator health.

Intensive agriculture – intensive debate


// The high population density in Belgium and the Netherlands leads to a high interdependence and interaction between farming and the citizens in both countries.

// There is a high environmental awareness in both countries, and the agricultural sector is expected to produce sufficient and healthy food in a sustainable way.

// Bayer is committed to sustainable agriculture, and its ForwardFarms are living examples of how this can be practiced.

// Bayer is involved in a broad variety of activities and initiatives in both countries to ensure that crop production and safeguarding of pollinators are promoted alongside each other in a sustainable way.

High population density is a key factor that contributes to the increased level of awareness for sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and pollinator health in Belgium and the Netherlands. Consequently, there is a high interdependence and interaction between farming and the population in both countries. “Agriculture impacts very directly on the Dutch and Belgians,” says Patricia Smet, Marketing Communication & Excellence Manager at Bayer Belgium.

Intensive land use

The Netherlands ranks among the top countries worldwide when it comes to agricultural productivity per hectare. “There are no outputs without inputs!” says Hinse Boonstra, Public & Government Affairs Manager, Bayer Netherlands. “Only through intensive land use can Dutch agriculture be so productive.” The situation in Flanders in northern Belgium, where intensive farming is the agricultural norm, is no different.

New technologies and scientific crop research have combined to produce greater yields. Innovation has allowed for the modernization and expansion of farming and has led to an increase in scale and specialization in agriculture. High productivity has benefits but also comes with costs, and these costs are debated more and more in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Sustainable agriculture and pollinator biodiversity

Bayer’s position on sustainable agriculture is unequivocal. Sustainable agriculture needs both the latest crop production technologies and pollinators to produce the extra food required to feed a growing global population, while at the same time preserving natural resources, including land, water and wildlife. State-of-the-art crop protection products and other plant science innovations help to boost crop yields, minimize harvest losses and enhance agricultural sustainability by conserving soil, water and energy.

ForwardFarming is about biodiversity and finding out how it can be better integrated into real-life, daily farm management.

ForwardFarming is about biodiversity and finding out how it can be better integrated into real-life, daily farm management.

By making land use more efficient, sustainable agri­culture preserves and creates space for natural habi­tats, helping to maintain the bio­diversity of plants and wild­life, including polli­nators.

Bayer is committed to protecting pollinators. Ways to do this are demonstrated in our ForwardFarming Program where we aim to combine bee protection and agriculture.

Typical farms in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries are taking part in the program, each with a different focus in crops and balance of key elements being implemented. This includes measures to stimulate pollinator biodiversity and studies investigating how to enhance pollination efficiency in order to maximize crop production.


ForwardFarm in Belgium

One example of sustainable agriculture in practice is Hof ten Bosch, a Bayer ForwardFarm situated in Huldenberg, just 15 km from Brussels. Two brothers, Jan and Josse Peeters, grow wheat, sugar beet, corn, oilseed rape and pears on around 100 hectares and potatoes on some 40 hectares.

ForwardFarming Belgium

ForwardFarming Belgium
Hof ten Bosch, Huldenberg, Belgium

Besides instigating sustainable measures to tackle the challenges of land erosion on their potato fields, the Peeters brothers have worked to increase biodiversity and reduce the ecological impact of their farming activities. Mixed hedges providing flowers throughout the year in the farm’s orchards, earwig shelters as well as grass buffers and flowering strips on their arable fields are just some of the successful measures they have implemented.

The work undertaken in the pear orchard clearly supported the needs of mason bees, for instance. This became obvious after collecting the bees’ offspring in the nesting boxes: 2,500 cocoons were found in 2016. In an on-farm study, Bayer is monitoring the benefits to pollinators of different flowering strips suitable for the agricultural setting. The initial findings revealed that the so-called ‘Tübinger mixture’ was ten times more attractive and the arable flower mixture three times more attractive to bees than a natural grass border. Appropriate recommendations will be passed on to interested farmers at the end of the study.

Three hives of honey bees and several nesting sites for solitary bees near the Hof ten Bosch orchards are providing shelter for honey bee colonies and breeding places for wild bees. Studies are undertaken to investigate whether solitary bees have a positive impact on pear production. Showcasing these measures and findings supports a constructive dialog with visitors to the ForwardFarm and with other stakeholders who take this opportunity to see how the farm’s orchards are being made more attractive for pollinators. Interest in how sustainable agriculture is practiced at Hof ten Bosch has been high. In 2016 alone, 2,146 visitors – amongst them farmers, NGOs and universities – were shown round the farm.


Bayer ForwardFarming

Bayer ForwardFarms in different European countries are living examples of how sustainable agriculture can be practiced. The farms involved in Bayer ForwardFarming – the Bayer ForwardFarms – make use of three basic components:

  • // Integrated Crop Solutions with high-quality seeds and crop protection products (chemicals and biologicals) to protect the yield and quality of agricultural commodities. These solutions are backed by tailored services ranging from agronomic support, field demonstrations, diagnostics and prediction tools to documentation.
  • // Proactive Stewardship to ensure product integrity (for seeds and crop protection products), protect human health and preserve the environment. Trainings are offered to raise standards of handling and usage, as well as to minimize any possible risks to human health and the environment.
  • // Partnerships to enhance the quality of life for farmers, communities and society. Mutually beneficial partnerships that include all players in the value chain and help to leverage the potential for collaboration in modern agriculture.



ForwardFarm in the Netherlands

At Bayer’s ForwardFarm in the Netherlands, Het Groene Hart, Jasper Roubos grows winter wheat, potatoes, onions and sugar beet on 83 hectares of very fertile clay soil in North Holland. A local beekeeper has placed nine hives on the ForwardFarm for his honey production, fostered by the diverse, non-crop vegetation. Several measures were taken to stimulate biodiversity, amongst others diversity of pollinators, including the introduction of nesting sites and food sources like flowering strips. In addition, measures are taken to improve the quality of soils, water and plant diversity at field edges. “A good environmental quality is the basis for healthy biodiversity and at the same time vital to agricultural production,” Boonstra explains.

ForwardFarming Netherlands

ForwardFarming Netherlands
Het Groene Hart, North Holland, Netherlands

On our ForwardFarm we show, in practice, that beekeeping and modern farming can coexist. The honey bees are doing very well, despite the fact that tulips are flowering right next to the beehives and need intensive crop management to flourish. This example shows that as long as prescribed management practices are followed, bees and agriculture can thrive. Of course, managed honey bees are farm animals and, therefore, poor indicators for biodiversity.
Besides these measures to demonstrate the compatibility of intensive agriculture with beekeeping, ForwardFarming is likewise about all biodiversity and finding out how this can be better integrated into real-life, daily farm management. One can think of stimulating natural predators of pests, pollinators or soil organisms like earthworms. It is clear that farmers can benefit from biodiversity, which offers various so-called ecosystem services. It is therefore interesting to enhance integrated crop management with measures that are beneficial for farmers and which support biodiversity at the same time. “This is a challenging task. Working with nature is complex and requires a lot of knowledge. In scientific literature, many promising ecosystem strategies are described for farmers. Making them work in practice is a whole different ball game. Nature can be unpredictable and the outcome is not always what a farmer needs,” Boonstra explains.

Yet these are not the only activities Bayer is undertaking to promote pollinator health in Belgium and the Netherlands. Bayer is also contributing to a number of country-wide, multistakeholder projects looking specifically at the honey bee.

BeeHappy project

While yearly colony losses of five to fifteen percent are considered normal by many professional beekeepers, significantly higher losses around 30 percent had been seen in Belgium over a number of years, implied by some to be linked to the use of pesticides. In 2013/2014, the average overwintering losses across Europe were the lowest for many years at nine percent according to COLOSS, whereas Belgium was still seeing relatively high winter loss rates above the European average (14.8 percent according to EPILOBEE).

Beekeeper Erik Dolstra introduces school children to the world of honey bees on the Dutch ForwardFarm.

Beekeeper Erik Dolstra introduces school children to the world of honey bees on the Dutch ForwardFarm.

The BeeHappy project initiated in 2013 by Phytofar, the Belgian plant protection industry association, aimed to discover why many honey bee colonies in different parts of Belgium did not survive recent winters, and to develop solutions to help weakened bee colonies make a good recovery. Besides Bayer and other agrochemical companies, a wide range of stakeholders were involved in the project, including agricultural machinery manufacturers, seed companies, academic scientists, a beekeepers’ association, a NGO, farmers’ unions and public authorities. Scientists have been researching factors such as air pollution, weather conditions, biodiversity, use of plant protection products and beekeeping practices and connecting them with the extensive pathological, mortality and health data from 360 honey bee colonies previously collected by academics from Ghent University and Belgian officials of the Food Safety Agency.

The conclusions, published in early 2017, show that Varroa infestation is the main factor correlated with the honey bee colony mortality. These findings tie in with the recent drop in overwintering losses seen in the country (COLOSS, 2016); Belgium experienced a much better winter in 2015/2016 with bee colony losses down to around twelve percent (similar to the European average) compared to the winter of 2014/2015 where losses as high as 36 percent were found (compared to the European average of 17 percent). This is assumed to be partly thanks to an increased awareness of Varroa and improved Varroa control measures.

Mean winter colony losses %

• Number of countries surveyed (COLOSS)

* EPILOBEE data (due to non-availability of COLOSS data). All other data: COLOSS.

EPILOBEE: pan-European study on honey bee colony losses in the years 2012–2014.

COLOSS: scientific network that has been conducting surveys on honey bee colony winter mortality since 2004.

Infographic Mean winter colony losses (%)

Bee surveillance program

In the Netherlands, interest in pollinator health is also high with beekeeper and other stakeholder groups being actively involved in the discussions around this topic and, in the past particularly, the role that pesticides may play in colony losses. Overwintering losses in the Netherlands have come down from around 25 percent to 8.5 to 14 percent in the last four winters (COLOSS, 2016). The Nederlandse Bijenhoudersvereniging (NBV), the Dutch beekeepers assocation located in Wageningen, indicates even lower numbers, with 6.5 percent in 2015/2016 (NBV, 2016). The causes of this welcome decline are unclear. To study all the main influences on honey bee health, the Dutch government initiated a four-year program (2014 until 2018) to measure the relevant parameters. Now two years into the program, it is too early to draw scientifically sound and detailed conclusions, yet so far correlations have been found between winter mortality and amongst others Varroa control, pollen sources and landscape characteristics.

In the meantime, the public debate on bee health has become more nuanced. It is generally acknowledged that, apart from possible side effects of pesticides, other factors influence bee health. Pests and diseases get more attention and also beekeeper practices are frequently discussed.

The public interest in providing not only bees but also other pollinators too, with good forage and nesting is also very positive. The Netherlands is literally covered with stakeholder initiatives: Bee Deals, a Honey Highway, Green Circles and a growing number of idylls.


Dialog is key to pollinator health

Veerle Mommaerts explains the studies undertaken in the pear orchard to stakeholders.

Veerle Mommaerts explains the studies undertaken in the pear orchard to stakeholders.

Veerle Mommaerts outlines the most important measures for preserving and improving pollinator health: “First of all, it is vital to have an ongoing dialog with beekeepers, the food chain, farmers and other stakeholders. Being aware of each other’s requirements and constraints is important. Take beekeepers and farmers: They clearly have a common interest, namely healthy honey bees. Farmers benefit from the bees’ pollination work and beekeepers harvest the honey.
However, farmers do need to protect their crops against pests and diseases, using pesticides responsibly in doing so. Beekeepers need to combat Varroa. For this, we need to increase awareness of Varroa control measures and improve beekeeping practices through dedicated training programs.” Since numerous factors, individually or in combination, have an effect on pollinator health, it is important to see this as a shared responsibility, and something that has to be collectively promoted. Hinse Boonstra adds: “The ForwardFarm is an excellent place to do this. It is a platform where sustainability measures in farming are put into practice and can be discussed in the field. This is very valuable when you discuss complicated issues like biodiversity decline.”

We have seen that, even in areas of intensive agriculture, there are many initiatives that can and are being put in place through stakeholders working together. This ensures that crop production and safeguarding of pollinators are promoted alongside each other in a sustainable way. In Belgium and the Netherlands, Bayer is continuing its awareness-raising and outreach work, addressing people’s concerns, encouraging public debate and expert discussion, and proactively promoting an understanding of how best to preserve and improve pollinator health.

Several measures have been taken on the farms to enhance biodiversity, including pollinator diversity: nesting sites and food sources like flowering strips, mixed hedges as well as grass buffers and earwig shelters.

Several measures have been taken on the farms to enhance biodiversity, including pollinator diversity: nesting sites and food sources like flowering strips, mixed hedges as well as grass buffers and earwig shelters.


Additional information

Learn more about the ForwardFarms in Belgium and the Netherlands and Bayers’ ForwardFarming concept:
Advancing Sustainable Agriculture through Demonstration, Dialog and Partnership

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Intensive agriculture – intensive debate Pollinator health and sustainable agriculture in Belgium and the Netherlands
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