(Beyond Pesticides, January 28, 2015) Global decline of pollinators and pollination services will have a devastating impact on the nutritional health of people in developing countries, especially women and children, if left unabated, according to a new study from scientists at the University of Vermont and Harvard University. This research is the first to examine how pollinators influence nutrient intake and the risk of nutrient deficiency. It also comes at a time when policy makers are slow to find long-term sustainable solutions to reversing pollinator declines, despite mounting scientific evidence urging immediate action.
Pollination services are valued at over $125 billion globally and pollinators are responsible for one in three bites of food we eat. However, pollinators like honey bees, wild bees, butterflies and others are in decline around the globe, with many beekeepers, scientists, and environmental activists singling out pesticides as a major contributing factor. But despite suggestions that pollinators are critical not only for global food supply, but specifically human nutritional health, there has not been any research to support this claim until now. The study, âDo Pollinators Contribute to Nutritional Health,â published in PLoS ONE, combined data on crop pollination requirements, food nutrient densities, and actual human diets to predict the effects of pollinator losses on the risk of nutrient deficiency.
The study focuses its analyses on children and women in developing countries (Zambia, Mozambique, Uganda and Bangladesh), where high rates of malnutrition and limited access to nutrient supplements may make individuals more susceptible to the effects of pollinator declines. Nutritional deficiencies in young children are most important in determining long-term health, cognitive abilities, and survival. The authors analyzed five of the most important nutrients to global nutrition: vitamin A, zinc, iron, folate, and calcium. They found that in some populations, like parts of Mozambique where many children and mothers are barely able to meet their needs for micronutrients, especially vitamin A, the disappearance of pollinators could push as many as 56 percent of people over the edge into malnutrition.
“This is the first study that quantifies the potential human health impacts of animal pollinator declines,” says Samuel Myers, MD, MPH, at the Harvard School of Public Health. Earlier studies have shown links between pollinators and crop yields âand between crop yields and the availability of food and nutrients. “But to evaluate whether pollinator declines will really affect human nutrition, you need to know what people are eating,” Dr. Myers explains.
According to the study, the role of pollinators in determining total nutrient intake varied widely among nutrients and countries. The researchers find that 69 percent or more of the vitamin A in children’s diets came from fruits and vegetables, many of which depend strongly on pollinators. Fruits and vegetables also contributed most of the folate to children’s diets, but these plants depended on pollinators to a much lesser degree. Further, the study estimates the potential effects of pollinator declines on risk of nutrient deficiency in the populations surveyed. It found that if pollinators are removed, 2 to 56%, 0 to 2%, 0 to 23%, 1 to 5%, and 0.1 to 3% of children in the populations surveyed become newly at risk of vitamin A, calcium, folate, iron, and zinc deficiencies, respectively. For vitamin A in Uganda and Mozambique, this increase was substantial (15% and 56%, respectively) and statistically significant. For folate in Mozambique, the change was also substantial (28%) and marginally significant. Folate is a critical nutrient for pre-natal nutrition and is therefore also a concern for pregnant women. However, the authors did not find significant differences in this group. The study finds that overall the risk of vitamin A deficiency is more sensitive to pollinator removal than that of other nutrients, and that over half of the populations in these vulnerable regions would become at risk of nutritional deficiency if pollinators and their services declined.
According to the authors, micronutrient deficiencies are estimated to affect more than 1 in 4 people around the globe. The âhidden hungerâ associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies affects individuals of every age and gender and can cause increased risk of maternal mortality, increased incidence of a variety of chronic and infectious diseases, reduced IQ, decreased work productivity, and increases in nutrient-specific diseases like goiter, night-blindness, and iron-deficiency anemia.
Emerging from this research is the importance of pollination services to the availability of vitamin A. The study notes that each year vitamin A deficiency causes an estimated 800,000 deaths in women and children, including 20â24% of child mortality from measles, diarrhea and malaria and 20% of all-cause maternal mortality. It is estimated to roughly double the risk of mortality from common conditions like measles, diarrhea, and malaria while increasing the risk of maternal mortality 4.5 times.
While there are several limitations and uncertainties to this study, the authors believe that it provides an important first step in understanding the importance of pollinators for nutritional health. âThe take-home is: pollinator declines can really matter to human health, with quite scary numbers for vitamin A deficiencies, for example,â saysÂ Taylor Ricketts, PhD, at the University of Vermontâs Gund Institute for Ecological Economics who co-led the study, âwhich can lead to blindness and increase death rates for some diseases, including malaria.â Further, â[E]cosystem damage can damage human health, so conservation can be thought of as an investment in public health.”
Pollinators continue to face dire threats to their survival. Bees, butterflies, and others have seen drastic population declines over the last several years due to habitat loss and widespread pesticide use. Pesticides also pose a greater threat to ecosystems and biodiversity, according to a meta-analysis by a group of global, independent scientists. One class of pesticides in particular, the neonicotinoids, has been identified as a major factor in bee losses across the U.S. Neonicotinoids are highly toxic to bees and have been shown to, even at low levels, impair foraging, navigational and learning behavior in bees, as well as suppress their immune system to point of making them susceptible to pathogens and parasites. Read: No Longer a Big Mystery. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), tasked with regulating pesticides and protecting the environment from harm, has thus far failed to sufficiently act to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides. In fact, just last week EPA approved yet another bee-toxic pesticide, flupyradifurone, following other recent and questionable bee-toxic pesticide approvals like sulfoxaflor, which was approved for registration despite warnings from concerned groups and beekeepers.
It is time to do our part to reverse pollinator decline and support policies and initiates that support sustainable methods of growing food and controlling pests. For more information on what you can do, visit our Bee Protective page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: University of Vermont,Â PLoS OneÂ
Photo Source: Bev V, North Carolina