In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found that sparse pollination led to an estimated 427,000 deaths every year. This is because suboptimal pollination resulted in a 3% to 5% drop in the production of fruit, vegetable, and nut. This puts communities at a higher risk of suffering from stroke, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even some types of cancer.
At present, around 768 million people worldwide are malnourished. Since 2015, that number has been drastically increasing. At the same time, approximately 2 billion people live with micronutrient deficiencies like iron, vitamin A, and zinc. As several countries are grappling with a steep rise in the number of people who are obese and overweight, entire populations are still consuming inadequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. This, in turn, is increasing the prevalence of diseases.
Researchers blame most of these public health issues on the agriculture industry’s environmental toll, which is the single largest driver of land degradation and biodiversity loss — particularly of pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, birds, bats, and small mammals. “It is also a significant contributor to climate change, responsible for one-fourth to one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. As such, growing more nutritious foods with lower environmental impact has become one of the great challenges of the 21st century,” the researchers wrote in their study.
“Ensuring an abundance and diversity of pollinators is one effective approach to address the nutritional and environmental challenges facing global food systems,” they added.
Nearly three-fourths of crops rely on animal pollination. This is because pollinators deliver far more pollen than wind or the self-pollination mechanisms of some crops and plants. Animal pollination creates the ideal conditions for fertilization and can improve the survival rates of seeds and fruits, which exponentially boosts crop yields.
“In addition, animal pollinators improve cross-pollination among different plants, thereby increasing genetic diversity by limiting inbreeding,” the researchers explained.
Some of the most famous cash crops like coffee and cocoa are heavily dependent on animal pollination for flourishing and thriving. Animal pollination by itself provides economic benefits worth $224–577 billion to the global agricultural industry. Thanks to the overuse of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, light pollution, and anthropogenic climate change, some scientists warn that we are beginning to witness an “insect apocalypse.”
In their study, the researchers utilized a model framework using data and evidence from farms based in different continents, including Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe. They focused on how much crop loss took place because of inadequate pollination. The team then used an agricultural-economic model to estimate the growing health impacts of lower pollination on mortality and dietary vulnerability —particularly the economic losses in three under-developed countries — Honduras, Nepal, and Nigeria.
While lost food production or economic losses are the highest in low-income countries, it was middle-income and rich countries suffer the most from non-communicable diseases. China, India, Indonesia, and Russia, which fall in the middle-income countries category, bear the greatest burden of public health issues. Whereas lower-income countries incurred massive losses by losing 10% to 30% of their total agricultural value.
“Our results suggest that suboptimal pollination appears to be already driving significant excess mortality globally and loss of economic value in producing regions. Furthermore, they suggest that it is also likely widening inequality in diets and health outcomes given that a reduced supply of pollinated foods would raise prices and narrow access within and across countries,” the researchers concluded.
“It is worth noting that our estimates of the health impacts of global pollinator deficits are likely to be conservative. Today’s estimated health impacts of insufficient pollination would be comparable to other major global risk factors: those attributable to substance use disorders, interpersonal violence, or prostate cancer,” they added.