New Study Confirms
Pollinator Decline Threatens our Food Supply
by Cornelia Reynolds, Noyo Food Forest Executive Director
Sometimes data can make something you think you already know oh so much more real. Bee Bold Mendocino exists to protect bees and other pollinators critical to our food security. Noyo Food Forest participates because we understand the importance of eliminating the pesticides killing off the world’s bee and pollinator populations and endangering the survival of global agriculture.
Yet a disturbing new study published last week struck home as if it was new news to me with startling details of the severe threat to our food supply created by the decline in bees and other pollinators.
The two-year study by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is the first of its kind to assess pollinators on a global scale. The study concludes that the world’s vertebrate and invertebrate pollinators “are being driven toward extinction by diverse pressures, many of them human-made, threatening millions of livelihoods and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of food supplies.”
Although its conclusions are dire, the report’s focus is forward with the many ways that gardeners, farmers, and educators—and ultimately policy makers—can contribute to reversing this disaster.
The study finds bees and butterflies at the highest risk of extinction, but many other pollinators are under pressure and in decline, including bats, beetles, birds, moths, and wasps. Over 16 percent of the world’s vertebrate pollinators such as birds and bats are in decline, and in island environments this figure is 30 percent and higher. The number of invertebrate pollinators going extinct is upwards of 40 percent in some areas with the greatest declines concentrated in northwestern Europe and North America—where trends are toward increased extinctions.
A team of researchers at University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics developed a national map of bee populations that confirms and details findings for the U.S. They estimate that wild bees declined in 23 percent of the contiguous U.S. between 2008 and 2013. Dr. Insu Koh, who led the project, told HuffPost Science in December 2015:
We identified 139 counties in key agricultural areas, including California Central Valley, the Pacific Northwest and the upper Midwest, that are suffering from wild bee population decline and high demand of crop pollination…. These areas are also the most important areas for U.S. agricultural production, comprising 39 percent of the U.S. cropland.
New UVM research identifies 139 counties in key agricultural regions of California, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, west Texas and the Mississippi River valley facing wild bee declines. The findings were published Dec. 21, 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Causes and Impact
The IPBES study found that pesticides, including neonicotinoid insecticides—one target of our Bee Bold campaign—threaten pollinators worldwide. Pests and diseases pose a special threat to managed bees, in some cases due to poor bee husbandry, as well as to the trade and movement of commercial bees. Pollinators are also threatened by the decline of indigenous and local agricultural practices that support pollinators, including traditional farming systems and maintenance of diverse landscapes and gardens. The study identifies other possible causes of pollinator decline such as genetically modified plants on which it makes no clear evaluation.
IPBES specifically points to the health and economic impact of a declining pollinator population on people in underdeveloped countries where key pollinator crops are important sources of nutrition and the production of crops like coffee and cacao are important sources of employment.
Pollinated crops provide the world’s fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and edible oils. According to IPBES, 75% of worldwide food crops depend at least in part on pollinators, as do 90% of wild flowering plants. They estimate annual global food production from the world’s pollinators as between $235 billion and $577 billion.
I’ve received no reply yet to my inquiry about why this estimate is so wide (the low end is less than half the upper estimate). But some examples will explain why it is so high: three crops highly dependent on bees for pollination are apples, mangos and almonds. These three crops alone are valued at $51.8 billion. Cacao tree seed is a $5.7 billion crop, literally the seed of a $98.3 billion market for chocolate in 2016. And coffee is a $100 billion worldwide business with over 25 million people in over 50 countries dependent on it for their economic livelihood.
If you like almonds, apples, blueberries, and watermelons, you should worry about bee decline.
–Dr. Insu Koh, University of Vermont, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics
Because so many of the causes of pollinator decline are man-made, including pesticides, pollution, invasive species, pathogens and climate change, the IPBES study emphasizes actions to reverse the damage. Primary solutions are to increase the diversity of pollinator habitats to help pollinator populations survive, and to reduce and eliminate the use of pesticides.
These are especially important because they are truly actionable for home gardeners and small farmers of all types right here in Mendocino, which the success of our Bee Bold Mendocino campaign will make a truly pollinator friendly county.
You can learn more about how sustainable agriculture can redress the decline of pollinators from many great local gardening educators, including the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens and, of course, here at noyofoodforest.org. Learn more about Bee Bold Mendocino at facebook.com/beeboldmendo/.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: