Many of the world’s pollinating insects are in decline. What does this mean for our food systems and biodiversity?
Bees are vital to healthy ecosystems and healthy economies. They transfer pollen between flowering plants, keeping the cycle of life going. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 75% of our crops rely on bees and other pollinators, meaning that three-quarters of the different crops we grow for food depend on pollinators to some extent. More and more people worry about the stability of our food systems as more studies suggest that the world’s pollinating insects are disappearing (many recent studies report a decline in insect populations in different regions and while this is not the case everywhere – some species are stable, and some have actually increased – most show an overall decline).
When calculating how much of our food production (in weight, not number of crops) comes from pollinator-dependent crops, it is much lower (35%), since cereals, legumes, and other staple crops do not depend on pollinators. Nevertheless, it is anticipated that our dependence on pollinators will grow over time as global diets diversify. As economies develop financially, populations tend to move away from staple crops towards more fruits, nuts, and other nutrient-rich foods.
It is also important to consider the amount of income – not only the amount of food – that could be lost. This particularly affects farmers in low-income countries who are heavily reliant on cash-crops such as cocoa, coffee, soybeans, and avocados for trade, which in turn are highly dependent on pollinators. A steep decline in pollinator populations might not translate into a dramatic change in the global production of calories, but it could hit some of the world’s poorest economically.
Bees are also important in terms of sustainable agriculture and creating rural jobs. By pollinating, they increase agricultural production, thus maintaining diversity and variety in our fields and on our plates. In addition, they provide millions of people with jobs and are an important source of farmers’ income. In the long-term, the protection of bees and the beekeeping sector can help reduce poverty and hunger, as well as preserve a healthy environment and biodiversity.