10 Aug 2016 Story Ecosystems

Pollinators under threat – so what?

About one in three mouthfuls of food we eat is delivered to us by pollinators.

Nairobi, 10 August 2016: Pollination is critical for food production and human livelihoods, and directly links wild ecosystems with agricultural production systems.

According to Allen Young, a leading cacao/cocoa expert, “A tiny fly no bigger than the head of a pin is responsible for the world's supply of chocolate.”

But a growing number of pollinator species worldwide are being driven towards extinction, threatening millions of livelihoods and hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of food supplies, according to the first global assessment of pollinators.

The assessment titled Thematic Assessment of Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production, a two-year study released in February 2016 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), highlights a number of ways to effectively safeguard pollinator populations. 

UNEP and partners were involved in a project tilted Conservation and Management of Pollinators for Sustainable Agriculture, through an Ecosystem Approach (also known as the Global Pollination Project, GPP,  and funded by Global Environment Facility, GEF) which fed into the assessment.

The project is led by Brazil, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, South Africa and coordinated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization with implementation support from UNEP.

The project supported a study which suggests that poorly performing farms could significantly increase their crop yields by attracting more pollinators to their land.

It showed that under smallholder agriculture, yields can be increased by 24 per cent through managing and enhancing pollination.

“It’s the first pollination study to directly address yields for farmers. This is a great achievement of a global multi-country GEF project,” says  Marieta Sakalian, UNEP’s Senior Programme Management/Liaison Officer (CGIAR/FAO), Biodiversity. “Global coordination facilitated by UNEP that brought together national and international organizations built capacity among researchers and practitioners in all project partner countries allowing them to carry out a mega analysis and came up with globally important results.”

The GPP results were also combined with other research into a meta-analysis, the results of which will feed into policy considerations.

The policy analysis and formulation guidance document - developed by project partners (together with the Berkeley Food Institute) - is the main GEF/UNEP input into the IPBES assessment on pollination.

There are more than 20,000 species of wild bees alone, plus many species of butterflies, flies, moths, wasps, beetles, birds, bats and other animals that contribute to pollination. Pollinated crops include those that provide fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and oils. Many of these are important dietary sources of vitamins and minerals, without which the risks of malnutrition might be expected to increase.

More than three-quarters of the world's food crops rely at least in part on pollination by insects and other animals.

Between $235 billion and $577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on direct contributions by pollinators.  

Chocolate, for example, is derived from the cacao tree seed. Cecidomyiid and ceratopogonid midges are essential for its pollination.

The volume of agricultural production dependent on animal pollination has increased by 300 per cent during the past 50 years, but pollinator-dependent crops show lower growth and stability in yield than crops that do not depend on pollinators.

Nearly 90 per cent of all wild flowering plants depend at least to some extent on animal pollination.

In addition to food crops, pollinators contribute to crops that provide biofuels.

Pollinators, especially bees, have also played a role throughout human history as inspirations for art, music, religion and technology.  Additionally, they improve quality of life, globally significant heritage sites and practices, symbols of identity, aesthetically significant landscapes. Sacred passages about bees occur in all major world religions.

Bees, butterflies particularly at risk
The assessment found that an estimated 16 per cent of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with global extinction - increasing to 30 per cent for island species - with a trend towards more extinction.

Although most insect pollinators have not been assessed at a global level, regional and national assessments indicate high levels of threat, particularly for bees and butterflies - with often more than 40 per cent of invertebrate species threatened locally.

"Wild pollinators in certain regions, especially bees and butterflies, are being threatened by a variety of factors," said IPBES Vice-Chair Sir Robert Watson.  "Their decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change."

Declines in regional wild pollinators have been confirmed for northwestern Europe and in North America.  Although local cases of decline have been documented in other parts of the world, data are too sparse to draw broad conclusions.

The assessment found that pesticides, including neonicotinoid insecticides, threaten pollinators worldwide, although the long-term effects are still unknown. A pioneering study conducted in farm fields showed that one neonicotinoid insecticide had a negative effect on wild bees, but the effect on managed honeybees was less clear.

Pests and diseases pose a special threat to managed bees, but the risk can be reduced through better disease detection and management, and regulations relating to the trade and movement of bees.

Genetically modified (GM) crops are usually either tolerant to herbicides or resistant to pest insects. The former reduces the availability of weeds, which supply food for pollinators. The latter often results in lower use of insecticides and may reduce pressure on beneficial insects including pollinators. However, the sub-lethal and indirect effects of GM crops on pollinators are poorly understood and not usually accounted for in risk assessments, says the IPBES study.

Pollinators are also threatened by the decline of practices based on indigenous and local knowledge. These practices include traditional farming systems; maintenance of diverse landscapes and gardens; kinship relationships that protect specific pollinators; and cultures and languages that are connected to pollinators.

Options for safeguarding pollinators
"The good news is that a number of steps can be taken to reduce the risks to pollinators, including practices based on indigenous and local knowledge," said Zakri Abdul Hamid, elected Founding Chair of IPBES at its first plenary meeting in 2012.  

Safeguards include the promotion of sustainable agriculture, which helps to diversify the agricultural landscape and makes use of ecological processes as part of food production. (Sustainable Development Goal 2 is “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.”)

Specific options include:

  • Maintaining or creating greater diversity of pollinator habitats in agricultural and urban landscapes;
  • Supporting traditional practices that manage habitat patchiness, crop rotation, and coproduction between science and indigenous local knowledge;
  • Education and exchange of knowledge among farmers, scientists, industry, communities, and the general public;
  • Decreasing exposure of pollinators to pesticides by reducing their usage, seeking alternative forms of pest control, and adopting a range of specific application practices, including technologies to reduce pesticide drift; and
  • Improving managed bee husbandry for pathogen control, coupled with better regulation of trade and use of commercial pollinators.

IPBES was founded in 2012 with 124 member nations to form a crucial intersection between international scientific understanding and public policy-making. The assessment was compiled by a team of 77 experts from all over the world.  It cites about 3,000 scientific papers and includes information about practices based on indigenous and local knowledge from more than 60 locations around the world.


For more information, please contact: Marieta Sakalian: [email protected]

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