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Declining Pollinator Populations Could Threaten the Global Food Supply

September 06, 2016

Story at-a-glance

  • More than 40 percent of pollinating insects and 16.5 percent of bird and mammal pollinators are at risk of extinction
  • Close to 90 percent of wild flowering plant species depend on the transfer of pollen by animals
  • More than 75 percent of the leading types of global food crops depend, at least in part, on animal pollinators

By Dr. Becker

A task force of 80 experts released some sobering news about the fragile state of the world's pollinators. This includes not only pollinating birds and insects like bees and butterflies but also pollinating mammals, such as bats, rodents, monkeys and lemurs.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report cited The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List assessments, which found 16.5 percent of bird and mammal pollinators are at risk of extinction.

In addition, more than 40 percent of pollinating insects are currently threatened. If pollinators continue to disappear, the report found, the ecosystem will undoubtedly suffer, as close to 90 percent of wild flowering plant species depend on the transfer of pollen by animals. In addition, the global food supply could be in serious trouble.

More Than 75 Percent of Leading Global Food Crops Depend on Animal Pollination

It's easy to take pollinators for granted, especially if you're not familiar with how these species assist in the amazing process of pollination. A plant's seeds can only be produced when pollen is transferred from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another.

Since the plants can't accomplish this themselves (except in the case of certain self-pollinating plants), they get a hand from nature. Both wind and water help to transfer pollen between plants to some extent, but pollinators are the main players.

These birds, insects and mammals sip nectar or eat pollen from the plant, the tiny grains stick to their bodies, then fall onto another flower's stigma as the pollinator travels from plant to plant.

According to the IPBES report, more than 75 percent of the leading types of global food crops depend, at least in part, on animal pollinators. IPBES continued:1

"Pollinator-dependent crops contribute to 35 percent of global crop production volume …

Given that pollinator-dependent crops rely on animal pollination to varying degrees, it is estimated that 5 to 8 percent of current global crop production, with an annual market value of $235 billion to $577 billion … worldwide is directly attributable to animal pollination."

Cocoa, Almonds, Coffee and More Depend on Pollinators

In a world without pollinators, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to eat a healthy diet. This is because many healthy food crops, including many fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts, are pollinator-dependent.

Previous research has suggested the disappearance of pollinators could cause global fruit supplies to decrease by nearly 23 percent, vegetables by more than 16 percent and nuts and seeds by 22 percent.2

Ann Bartuska, Ph.D., deputy chief for research at the USDA Forest Service and an author of the IPBES study, told The Cornucopia Institute, "To maintain the wide variety of foods we need to stay healthy, we need pollinators."3

Indeed, a separate study by researchers from Harvard University, published in The Lancet, analyzed supplies of 224 types of food in 156 countries and quantified the amount of nutrients the foods contain.

They also determined to what extent the food is dependent on pollinators, and what may happen if those pollinators were no longer around to provide pollination. If pollinators were to disappear completely:4

What's Causing Pollinator Populations to Decline?

The IPBES report noted many threats to pollinators, including changes in land use, intensive industrial agriculture (and the planting of monocultures), pesticide use, environmental pollution, invasive species and pathogens. Industrial agriculture has been particularly damaging. According to IPBES:

"A number of features of current intensive agricultural practices threaten pollinators and pollination. Moving toward more sustainable agriculture and reversing the simplification of agricultural landscapes offer key strategic responses to risks associated with pollinator decline."

They mentioned, specifically, that strengthening diversified farming systems, such as mixing crop and livestock operations, and use of sustainable agricultural techniques like crop rotation could help foster pollinators and pollination.

Pesticides, too, "have demonstrated to have a broad range of lethal and sublethal effects on pollinators under controlled experimental conditions," the report noted. They suggested decreasing pollinator pesticide exposure by reducing the use of pesticides via a number of methods, including organic farming and farmer education.

White House Announces Steps to Protect Pollinators

In 2015, the U.S. government announced a program being led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is intended to promote pollinator health. The three main goals of the interagency task force include:5

The program emphasized the need for an "all hands on deck" approach to improving pollinator health and pointed out the role that individuals can play in protecting these species:6

"People of all ages and communities across the country can play a role … YOU can share some land with pollinators — bees, butterflies, other insects, birds, bats — by planting a pollinator garden or setting aside some natural habitat. YOU can think carefully before applying any pesticides and always follow the label instructions. YOU can find out more about the pollinator species that live near you."

In addition, you can also take these steps, recommended by the Pollinator Partnership, to help save pollinators:7

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Sources and References

  • 1 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Pollination Report
  • 2, 4 Lancet July 15, 2015
  • 3 The Cornucopia Institute March 18, 2016
  • 5, 6 WhiteHouse.gov May 19, 2015
  • 7 Pollinator Partnership, Pollination
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