Pollinator Decline could kill Over 400K People Annually

Photo Courtesy of Harwood Honey. https://www.facebook.com/HarwoodHoney/

Pollinator Decline could kill Over 400K People annually according to a new study by Harvard scientists. A team of scientists led by Harvard scientist Samuel Myers, recently sought to quantify this ‘pollinator yield gap’. They used data from hundreds of experimental farms across Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Humans have long been aware of the detrimental effects harmful pesticides, climate change, air pollution, farming practices, and land-use changes have on pollinators. 80 percent of all flowering plants rely on pollinators like bees for reproduction. Various studies have demonstrated the importance of these pollinators for food crops. However, until now, no one fully understood how the loss of pollinators impacts human well-being.

Objective of the Study

The goal was to analyze the current effects of inadequate pollination on human health around the world in terms of the impact it has on the diet. Additionally, they wanted to establish the potential impact inadequate pollination has on individuals and populations.

The research allowed the team to draw connections between dietary risk factors and mortality rates with crop and pollinator data. In addition, it exhibited associated diet-related chronic diseases and international trade information.

Senior Author and Harvard planetary health scientist Samual Myers said,

¨A critical missing piece in the biodiversity discussion has been a lack of direct linkages to human health.¨

How the Study was Conducted

The scientists implemented a climate-centric approach to quantify the current yield gaps of animal-pollinated foods. They then estimated how much of this deficiency is due to inadequate pollinators based on previous research. The subsequent simulation involved deducting the estimated loss of pollinated yield (pollinator yield gap) from the total yield.

By using an agriculture-economic model they then estimated the impact this loss of pollinated yield would have in terms of food production, consumption ad interregional trade. To estimate the associated changes in dietary risks and mortality by country and globally they used a comparative risk assessment. They also carried out three diverse case-studies (Honduras, Nepal, and Nigeria) to estimate the lost economic value of crop production.

Pollinator Decline could kill Over 400K People Annually

The results were startling; they revealed that insufficient populations of pollinators are largely responsible not only for decreased food production but also for a greater number of health problems among humans.

Worldwide 3 to 5 % of fruit, vegetable and nut production are lost due to inadequate pollination. This translates to an estimated 427,000 excess deaths per year due to lost healthy food consumption and diseases associated therewith.

Distribution and Impact of Pollinator Decline

The findings demonstrated that the modeled impacts were not evenly distributed. In Middle- and high income countries the impact on food consumption and mortality due to insufficient pollination was greater with higher rates of noncommunicable disease, whereby lower income countries had a higher concentration of lost food production.   

The economic impact was particularly felt in lower-income countries where lost food production resulted in significant revenue losses estimated to be between 12 – 31 percent in Honduras, Nepal and Nigeria alone. These three countries showed a 3 to 19 percent reduction in crop yields due to pollination deficits.

However this does not tell the full story since there are other health issues associated with dwindling pollinator numbers. These include a reduced access to medicinal plants and bee products or deficiencies in vitamins A and folate due to inadequate nutrition from lack of produce. In addition, those affected by crop losses often have insufficient money available for medical care, which further compromises the effect on health outcomes.

According to the team,

¨insufficient populations of pollinators were responsible for large present-day burdens of disease through lost healthy food consumption.¨

Executive Director of the non-profit Pollinator Partnership Kelly Bills, who was not involved in the study, commented,

¨This research underlines just how critical pollination services are to human health and well-being.¨

Matthew Smith, Co-author of the study told the New Scientist,

“It’s well accepted that pollinators are an important part of Earth’s precious biodiversity, and most people have really taken to heart that they play a key role in supporting food supplies and diets. Adding the extra dimension of human health introduces an even more urgent imperative to policy-makers: Protecting and growing a robust pollinator population not only helps protect key foods, but also supports public health.”


Global pollination deficits are causing loss of life, economic losses, and health impacts. In order to make positive changes it is essential to limit pesticide usage. Simultaneously, existing natural habitats must be maintained and degraded habitats restored. Additionally planting more flowers and diverse plants will also help support local pollinator populations. This recent study highlights just how critical it is that we look after our pollinators if we want to both protect key foods for human consumption and ensure good public health outcomes worldwide.

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