With Pollinator Declines, Millions at Risk for Malnutrition

EurekAlert     University of Vermont    January 26, 2015

Bees allow farms to thrive. But new research from UVM and Harvard scientists shows how bees and other pollinators may be crucial to human health too. The study in PLOS ONE presents the first-ever empirical test of how declining pollinators may increase risk of nutrient deficiencies -- with worrisome connections to diseases like measles and malaria, so prevalent in the developing world.A new study shows that more than half the people in some developing countries could become newly at risk for malnutrition if crop-pollinating animals -- like bees -- continue to decline.

Despite popular reports that pollinators are crucial for human nutritional health, no scientific studies have actually tested this claim -- until now. The new research by scientists at the University of Vermont and Harvard University has, for the first time, connected what people actually eat in four developing countries to the pollination requirements of the crops that provide their food and nutrients.

"The take-home is: pollinator declines can really matter to human health, with quite scary numbers for vitamin A deficiencies, for example," says UVM scientist Taylor Ricketts who co-led the new study, "which can lead to blindness and increase death rates for some diseases, including malaria."

It's not just plummeting populations of bees. Scientists around the world have observed a worrisome decline of many pollinator species, threatening the world's food supply. Recent studies have shown that these pollinators are responsible for up to forty percent of the world's supply of nutrients.

The new research takes the next step. It shows that in some populations -- like parts of Mozambique that the team studied, 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.

The study, "Do Pollinators Contribute to Nutritional Health?" was led by Alicia Ellis and Taylor Ricketts at UVM's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and Samuel Myers at the Harvard School of Public Health. It appears in the Jan. 9 issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

The "hidden hunger" associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies is estimated to harm more than 1 in 4 people around the globe, the scientists note, contributing to increased risk of many diseases, reduced IQ and diminished work productivity. "Continued declines of pollinator populations could have drastic consequences for global public health," the team writes.

"This is the first study that quantifies the potential human health impacts of animal pollinator declines," says Myers. Earlier studies have shown links between pollinators and crop yields -- and 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," Myers explains. So the new study examined the full pathway from pollinators through to detailed survey data about people's daily diets in parts of Zambia, Mozambique, Uganda and Bangladesh.

"How much mango? How much fish?" says Ricketts. "And from that kind of data we can find out if they get enough vitamin A, calcium, folate, iron and zinc." Then the scientists were able to examine the likely impact a future without pollinators would have on these diets.

And for parts of the developing world, that future could well include "an increase in neural tube defects from folate deficiency or an increase in blindness and infectious diseases from vitamin A deficiency," Myers says, "because we have transformed our landscapes in ways that don't support animal pollinators anymore."

"We find really alarming effects in some countries for some nutrients and little to no effect elsewhere," Ricketts says. On the bleak end of the spectrum, the team projected little difference in Bangladesh, since so many people there are already malnourished. And, at the other end of the spectrum, Zambia should be relatively insulated from this risk. That's because -- though the scientists project reductions in the intake of vitamin A with pollinator declines in Zambia -- "there is so much vitamin A in the diet already that it didn't push very many people below the threshold," Myers explains.

This new study fits into an emerging field of research exploring how the very rapid transformation of Earth's natural systems affects human health. The big picture? "Ecosystem damage can damage human health," Ricketts says, "so conservation can be thought of as an investment in public health."

Read at... http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-01/uov-wpd012615.php

The Economic Challenges Posed by Declining Pollinator Populations

The White House                                June 20, 2014
Office of the Press Secretary 

Fact Sheet: The Economic Challenge Posed by Declining Pollinator Populations 

Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators—including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies—from the environment. The problem is serious and poses a significant challenge that needs to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impacts on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.

Economic Importance of Pollinators:

  • Insect pollination is integral to food security in the United States. Honey bees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America. Globally, 87 of the leading 115 food crops evaluated are dependent on animal pollinators, contributing 35% of global food production.
  • Pollinators contribute more than 24 billion dollars to the United States economy, of which honey bees account for more than 15 billion dollars through their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets.
  • Native wild pollinators, such as bumble bees and alfalfa leafcutter bees, also contribute substantially to the domestic economy. In 2009, the crop benefits from native insect pollination in the United States were valued at more than 9 billion dollars.

The Challenge of Pollinator Declines:

  • The number of managed honey bee colonies in the United States has declined steadily over the past 60 years, from 6 million colonies (beehives) in 1947 to 4 million in 1970, 3 million in 1990, and just 2.5 million today. Given the heavy dependence of certain crops on commercial pollination, reduced honey bee populations pose a real threat to domestic agriculture. 
  • Some crops, such as almonds, are almost exclusively pollinated by honey bees, and many crops rely on honey bees for more than 90% of their pollination. California’s almond industry alone requires the pollination services of approximately 1.4 million beehives annually—60% of all U.S. beehives—yielding 80% of the worldwide almond production worth 4.8 billion dollars each year.
  • Since 2006, commercial beekeepers in the United States have seen honey bee colony loss rates increase to an average of 30% each winter, compared to historical loss rates of 10 to 15%. In 2013–14, the overwintering loss rate was 23.2%, down from 30.5% the previous year but still greater than historical averages and the self-reported acceptable winter mortality rate.
  • The recent increased loss of honey bee colonies is thought to be caused by a combination of stressors, including loss of natural forage and inadequate diets, mite infestations and diseases, loss of genetic diversity, and exposure to certain pesticides. Contributing to these high loss rates is a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), in which there is a rapid, unexpected, and catastrophic loss of bees in a hive.
  • Beekeepers in the United States have collectively lost an estimated 10 million beehives at an approximate current value of $200 each. These high colony loss rates require beekeepers to rapidly, and at substantial expense, rebuild their colonies, placing commercial beekeeping in jeopardy as a viable industry and threatening the crops dependent on honey bee pollination. The loss rates have driven up the cost of commercial pollination: for instance, the cost of renting honey bee hives for almond pollination rose from about $50 in 2003 to $150-$175 per hive in 2009.
  • Some of the viral agents that are impacting honey bee colonies are also now reported to be adversely affecting native pollinators, such as bumble bees, and the pollination services they provide.
  • Population declines have also been observed for other contributing pollinator species, such as Monarch butterflies, which migrate from Mexico across the United States to Canada each year, returning to overwinter in the same few forests in Mexico. The Monarch butterfly migration, an iconic natural phenomenon that has an estimated economic value in the billions of dollars, sank to the lowest recorded levels this winter, with an imminent risk of failure.

Administration Actions:

In response to the challenges to commercial bee-keeping, the President’s 2015 Budget recommends approximately $50 million across multiple agencies within USDA to: enhance research at USDA and through public-private grants, strengthen pollinator habitat in core areas, double the number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program that are dedicated to pollinator health, and increase funding for surveys to determine the impacts on pollinator losses.

Building on this budget initiative, President Obama today issued a Presidential Memorandum on Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators that takes a number of important steps to tackle the problem of pollinator declines, including:

  • Directing the Federal Government to use its research, land management, education, and public/private partnership capacities to broadly advance honey bee and other pollinator health and habitat;
  • Establishing a new Pollinator Health Task Force, co-chaired by United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, to develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy. The Strategy will include: a coordinated research action plan to understand, prevent, and recover from pollinator losses, including determining the relative impacts of habitat loss, pesticide exposure, and other stressors; a public education plan to help individuals, businesses, and other organizations address pollinator losses; and recommendations for increasing public-private partnerships to build on Federal efforts to protect pollinators;
  • Directing Task Force agencies to develop plans to enhance pollinator habitat on federal lands and facilities in order to lead by example to significantly expand the acreage and quality of pollinator habitat, consistent with agency missions and public safety; and
  • Directing Task Force agencies to partner with state, tribal, and local governments; farmers and ranchers; corporations and small businesses; and non-governmental organizations to protect pollinators and increase the quality and amount of available habitat and forage.

In line with these efforts, the Federal Government will also work to restore the Monarch butterfly migration using research and habitat improvements that will benefit Monarchs as well as other native pollinators and honey bees. These actions support the February 2014 Joint Statement by President Obama, Prime Minister Harper of Canada, and President Peña Nieto of Mexico to renew and expand collaboration between North American nations to conserve the Monarch butterfly.

Read at:  http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/20/fact-sheet-economic-challenge-posed-declining-pollinator-populations