By Elizabeth Black, intern with the Council's Global Food and Agriculture Program
Animal pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, moths, and wasps, provide the global food system with an invaluable service that doesn't cost money, human labor, or energy: pollination. Pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from the male to female reproductive parts of a flower, allowing for fertilization and the growth of new plants to occur. It is crucial to the quantity, quality, and value of our global food supply.
Ninety percent of flowering plants depend on animal pollination and more than three-fourths of leading global food crops rely on pollination for increased yield and quality. Overall, 35 percent of global crop production volume is attributable to pollinator-dependent crops. Yet, animal pollinators are increasingly in danger of extinction, threatening sustained agricultural productivity and food security.
According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), more than 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species and almost 16.5 percent of vertebrate pollinators are at risk of global extinction due to widespread threats that vary among countries and regions. Several of the cited threats to pollinator species’ abundance, diversity, and health include climate change, pesticide use, environmental pollution, land-use change, intensive agricultural management, and invasive pathogens.
In particular, intensive farming practices, such as the widespread use of insecticides and other pesticides, can be enormously threatening to the health of wild animal pollinators by destroying their habitat, poisoning their food sources, and impairing their ability to pollinate and reproduce. Evidence of this can be seen in southwest China, where intensive farming and pesticide use has eliminated the wild bee population.
While this situation is an anomaly, it also serves as a warning: such actions are not sustainable. Not only can the factors listed above threaten the health of animal pollinators, they also jeopardize the health of our economies, our communities, and our ecosystems.
The Price of Pollinator Losses
Local, national, and global economies depend greatly on the services provided by animal pollinators, and the global economic fallout from the endangerment or extinction of animal pollinators could be enormous. The 5-8 percent of global crop production that relies on animal pollination has an annual market worth of $235-577 billion worldwide. In the United States alone, animal pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the economy, with honey bees comprising $15 billion of that number through their pollination of nut, fruit, and vegetable crops. According to IPBES, crop production would decrease by more than 90 percent in 12 percent of leading global crops as a result of total pollinator loss, leading to severe financial losses for actors throughout food supply chains.
Animal-pollinated cash crops, such as almonds, cocoa, and coffee, account for enormous market shares of the world’s economies by providing import and export markets for countries of all income levels. As a result, billions of people’s livelihoods depend on the availability of these cash crops as a source of employment and income. If animal pollinator species continue to decline—reducing global crop production and supply—employment and incomes for many people and their communities could be severely jeopardized. Additionally, fluctuations in global crop supplies may affect those not directly involved in agricultural production by raising prices for consumers.
Nutrition and Diet Diversity
Human nutrition and diet diversity are also at risk due to animal pollinator loss. Animal-pollinated crops provide us with many of the nutrients needed for a diverse and healthy diet and are essential to preventing micronutrient malnutrition. In fact, pollinator-mediated crops—including fruits and vegetables such as apples, berries, tomatoes, beans, and nuts—constitute 40 percent of the global nutrient supply for humans.
If the abundance and diversity of pollinators continue to decline, the risk of micronutrient deficiencies and food insecurity among vulnerable populations will increase dramatically. Thus, protecting animal pollinators is not only an economic priority, but a public health priority as well.
Moreover, the survival of ecosystems and animal pollinators are mutually dependent on one another. While animal pollinators play a crucial role in ensuring a sustainable global food supply, they are also responsible for maintaining many important ecosystem processes and food webs, and contribute to the production of medicines, biofuels, fibers such as cotton, and construction materials such as timber.
For example, flowering plants—which survive and reproduce as a result of animal pollination—provide many important ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas absorption, and a food supply for diverse species. If we are to maintain biodiversity and the naturally-occurring ecosystem processes that millions of species—including our own—depend on, protecting pollinators is an essential first step. Likewise, we must protect our ecosystems if we wish to prevent the extinction of pollinators.
A Global Duty: Increasing Accountability and Improving Efforts
It is important to note that concrete and sustainable efforts to protect animal pollinators do exist. Such efforts include habitat conservation, the use of alternative non-toxic agriculture methods, and animal and environmental protection mandates and laws, among others. In order to protect the global population from food insecurity, malnutrition, and economic instability in the face of demographic changes, globalization, and increased environmental pressures, accountability is key.
Now, more than ever, at the local, national, and global level, we must take specific measures to mitigate the direct and indirect factors that endanger pollinators. Financial investment, research, and consistent global stewardship and governance are key factors needed in the effort to sustain the lives of pollinators. Overall, protecting animal pollinators means protecting human welfare and global ecosystems. Failure to do so will jeopardize food security by posing imminent threats to the global economy, nutrition and diet diversity, and the biodiversity of ecosystems. But our success in doing so will ensure our ability to feed a growing population for generations to come.