Pollinator numbers are dwindling, with research showing beekeepers in the United States alone lost 45.5% of their managed honey bee colonies between April 2020 and April 2021. The average year-to-year loss since 2006, meanwhile, is also high: estimated at 39.4%. This issue has an impact on our food supply, with nearly 100 of the U.S.’s specialty crops requiring pollination. Now, a new study has found that the interruption to pollination is impacting global health.
Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently investigated the global crop loss stemming from inadequate pollination, and its resulting impacts on health. The findings, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, show that the loss of healthy food may be contributing to chronic disease incidence and causing more than 400,000 excess deaths each year.
Samuel Myers, the study’s senior author and principal research scientist in planetary health at the Department of Environmental Health, says, “A critical missing piece in the biodiversity discussion has been a lack of direct linkages to human health. This research establishes that loss of pollinators is already impacting health on a scale with other global health risk factors, such as prostate cancer or substance use disorders.”
To conduct the study, the team used a model focusing on crop loss due to insufficient pollination at hundreds of experimental farms across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. They then coupled this with a global risk-disease model to estimate how the decrease in pollination impacts dietary risks, mortality, and economic loss.
In so doing, they found that inadequate pollination had led to a 3-5% loss of fruit, vegetable, and nut production. This, in turn, was found to lead to an estimated 427,000 excess deaths each year due to a lower amount of healthy food consumption and the diseases to which that is linked, including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
Lower-income countries were found to experience higher amounts of crop loss – possibly between 10 and 30% of total agricultural value – but the health impacts were more pronounced in middle- and higher-income countries.
Timothy Sulser, study co-author and senior scientist at the International Food Policy Research Institute, says, “The results might seem surprising, but they reflect the complex dynamics of factors behind food systems and human populations around the world. Only with this type of interdisciplinary modeling can we get a better fix on the magnitude and impact of the problem.”
The team says their findings show the need to promote pollinator-friendly practices, as a means to maintain agricultural livelihoods and human health.
If you’d like to help pollinator numbers rebound, consider helping plant flowers to feed bees!