Jan 31, 2015 by


bee on a flower

CREDIT: AP Photo/Al Behrman

Many people in developing nations already face a range of challenges, advice including poverty, ailment pollution, and climate change that’s helping make droughts longer and storms more intense. But according to a new study, residents of developing nations could also soon be struggling with something else: malnutrition fueled by the decline of pollinators around the world.

The study, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, looked at dietary surveys from women and children in parts of Zambia, Uganda, Mozambique, and Bangladesh. The University of Vermont and Harvard University researchers calculated what percentage of five nutrients — vitamin A, zinc, iron, folate, and calcium — in the women and children’s diets came from foods that are heavily dependent on pollinators (crops such as cocoa and Brazil nuts, for example, rely on bees for pollination). The researchers found that, under a scenario in which all pollinators were removed, up to 56 percent of the people in the areas looked at would be at risk of nutritional deficiencies.

Those deficiencies can go far beyond simply not getting proper nutrition, the report notes: vitamin A deficiency causes 800,000 women and children to die every year, and has been found to roughly double the risk of death from measles, diarrhea, and malaria.

“The take-home is: pollinator declines can really matter to human health, with quite scary numbers for vitamin A deficiencies, for example, which can lead to blindness and increase death rates for some diseases, including malaria,” Taylor Ricketts, a UVM scientists who co-authored the study, said in a statement.

This is the first study, according to the researchers, to quantify pollinators’ impact on human health. It’s been hypothesized before that pollinator decline will likely have an impact on human nutrition, but no studies — before this one — empirically refuted or backed up this claim.

The researchers also found that the vulnerability to pollinator decline of a certain place depends not only on what foods the residents of that place get most of their nutrition from, but also on how vulnerable the populations are to malnutrition even when pollinator populations are healthy. The researchers found that in Bangladesh, many women and children were already so malnourished that removing all pollinators had little effect, but in places where women and children had access to only a small amount of vitamin-A-rich, pollinator-dependent fruits and vegetables, the risks of malnutrition from pollinator removal were more pronounced.

The decline of managed honeybees in the U.S. has been documented since 2006. Despite a a federal report last year that found that fewer managed honeybees died during winter 2013 than during winter 2012, many scientists are still concerned about the state of the country’s honeybee populations. Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which adult bees in a colony disappear from their hives, has been blamed for most of the losses.

But, as the study highlights, honeybees — and many wild pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies — are at risk of decline in many parts of the world. A study from 2013 found that that decline of wild bees and other pollinators could pose more of a risk to global food production than the decline of managed honeybees.

“It was astonishing; the result was so consistent and clear,” Lucas Garibaldi, an Argentina-based researcher who led the study told the Guardian in 2013. “We know wild insects are declining so we need to start focusing on them. Without such changes, the ongoing loss is destined to compromise agricultural yields worldwide.”

The new research strengthens that claim: that not only will agricultural yields diminish if pollinators continue to decline, human health around the world could too. A variety of people — from members of Congress to CEOs — have called on the U.S., in particular, to ban or restrict neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that’s been tied to declines in bee health. But conservation of bee-friendly habitat is important, too, and is something environmental organizations — and recently, the White House — have focused on.

“Ecosystem damage can damage human health,” UVM researcher Ricketts said. “Conservation can be thought of as an investment in public health.”

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