A bee on a flower. © 123RF
A bee on a flower. © 123RF

Extinction of pollinators jeopardises food security, warn scientists

A growing number of pollinator species are being driven toward extinction, threatening billions of dollars of food supplies, according to research.

A two-year global assessment of pollinators, published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), has outlined the diverse pressures threatening millions of livelihoods and up to $577bn worth of food supplies.

The study outlined the economic, social and cultural importance of species that contribute to pollination, such as bees and butterflies, and also highlighted a number of ways to effectively safeguard pollinator populations. 

According to the study there are more than 20,000 species of wild bees, plus many varieties of butterflies, flies, moths, wasps, beetles, birds, bats and other animals that contribute to pollination. 

Three quarters of the world’s food crops depend at least in part on pollination, and the annual of value of crops directly affected by pollinators is estimated at between $235bn and $577bn.

Pollinated crops include those that provide fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and oils. Almost 90% of wild flowering plants depend to some extent on animal pollination.

Pollinators also contribute to crops that provide biofuels such as canola and palm oils, fibres such as cotton, medicines, forage for livestock and construction materials.

Many pollinated crops are important dietary sources of vitamins and minerals, without which the risks of malnutrition might be expected to increase, the study said.

Several crops also represent an important source of income in developing countries. There has been a 300% increase in the volume of agricultural production dependent on animal pollination in the past 50 years.

The study concluded that 16.5% of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with extinction globally, while more than 40% of invertebrate pollinator species, particularly bees and butterflies, are facing extinction.

“Pollinators are important contributors to world food production and nutritional security,” said Vera Lucia Imperatriz-Fonseca, co-chair of the assessment and senior professor at the University of São Paulo. “Their health is directly linked to our own well-being.”

Declines in regional wild pollinators have been confirmed for North Western Europe and in North America. The assessment found that some pesticides threaten pollinators worldwide, although the long term effects are still unknown. Pollinators are also threatened by the decline in traditional farming systems and the maintenance of diverse landscapes and gardens.

“Wild pollinators in certain regions, especially bees and butterflies, are being threatened by a variety of factors,” said IPBES vice chairman Sir Robert Watson. “Their decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change.”

The study has identified safeguards including the promotion of sustainable agriculture, which helps to diversify the agricultural landscape and makes use of ecological processes as part of food production.

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