For bees to survive, they need wild habitat rather than fields of crops; large-scale food production fails to provide homes for them. As Big Ag increasingly turns wilderness into manicured, mono-cropped fields of commodities, it eliminates more and more bee habitat.
The trend has enormous implications for food, world economies and more according to a recent and engrossing study.
Pollination contributes to more than 75% of worldwide crop diversity, and 35% of crop production by volume according to the study. Many crops grown in industrialized Western countries do not need bees for pollination; they depend upon wind instead. Wheat, for example, yields its berries without the help of bees. Meanwhile, crops like coffee and cashews widely grown in less developed countries rely more on bees.
Healther diets leaning on bee-pollinated crops
Demand for bee-pollinated crops is increasing due to growing “societal awareness of the importance of a healthy diet,” the study says. As demand from developed countries for bee-pollinated foods like mangoes and avocados spikes, farmers in the countries that grow them, mostly in less developed countries, replace bee habitat with the things people need for smoothies and guacamole.
In other words, desire in developed countries for bee-pollinated foods is wiping out the environments bees need to live — and to pollinate those macadamia nut trees.
“The ongoing decline of pollinators is leading to reductions in crop productivity worldwide, even in regions that are still rich in biodiversity,” the researchers write.
The problem creates environmental ripples far beyond agriculture.
The study considers bees a finite natural resource, like water and soil. Each pollinator makes a certain number of visits to flowers during its lifetime. Every pollination event eliminates the possibility for pollination of another blossom.
Bees that swarm to crops often skip pollinating wild plants
Mass-flowering crops can act as magnets for pollinators, and lead to increased bee visitation to bordering crop fields. But the magnet-effect also keeps bees focused on one spot, rather than roaming widely.
As a result, many wild plants that depend upon pollination suffer, and biodiversity declines.
In addition to impacts on overall biodiversity, the prevalence of pollinator-dependent crops in less-developed countries has economic implications.
In effect, developed countries are virtually importing pollination services from countries that sustain pollination services with natural habitat. “Agricultural expansion is likely to increase isolation of croplands from natural habitat and to cause declines in pollinator-dependent crop yields, which in turn may accelerate the conversion of new areas to agriculture to sustain production in response to international demand,” the study says.
Establishment of “virtual pollination flow” can guide policy
The status quo is not sustainable. The rise of plant-based dairy, to highlight just one example, has led to a proliferation of alternative milks, cheeses and yogurts made from things like cashews and macadamia nuts, both of which depend upon pollination and are grown in less-developed countries.
As demand for agricultural products like these continues to spike in the developed world, increasingly more bee habitat in less-developed nations will get razed to grow high-demand plants.
The study proposes quantifying a “virtual pollination flow” to help guide global socioeconomic policies. The goal: to develop strategies to protect biodiversity in agricultural systems “linked to export markets, involving shared responsibility, economic rewards and/or biodiversity conservation enforcement across regions.”
Thanks to such interesting research, we now have a better understanding of how biodiversity, pollinators, agriculture, countries and economic systems intersect and depend on one another.
With this detailed map, I hope governments, industry and NGOs find paths forward that enrich us all — wild places, bees, agriculture and humans.
And it gives me food for thought as I inhale my morning coffee, afternoon avocado toast and postprandial serving of mango cashew yogurt.