Stanford research links malnutrition & pollination

By Liz Rauer

A new study published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society suggests the contribution of bees and other insects to human nutrition is potentially much higher than previously thought. The research is particularly important to individuals suffering from malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in Southeast Asia, India, central and southern Africa and Central America.

Further understanding of where pollination is most critical to agricultural production and human nutrition is critical to prioritizing regions for pollinator conservation and research.

When the number of bees declines, so do the crops that depend on insects for pollination and fruit production.

"A disruption in pollination services certainly has a price tag; estimates go as high as $390 billion annually, but the cost to our nutrition could be even greater," said Becky Chaplin-Kramer, lead author of the study and a Stanford scientist working with the Natural Capital Project.

"Public health policy should not take for granted the ecosystem services that underpin agricultural production."

Scientists affiliated with the Natural Capital Project – a partnership among the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund – contributed to the study.

The researchers collaborated to gather global datasets of crop yields for 115 of the most common food crops, along with data on pollination dependence and micronutrient content of each of those crops, and then combined that information with estimates from the World Health Organization of micronutrient malnutrition.

The team focused on vitamin A and iron, two of the three nutrients of greatest concern to public health in the developing world, as well as folate, which is important in preventing birth defects. The spatial data allowed the research team to identify regions where nutritional deficiencies overlap with a dependence on pollinators.

Researchers were able to identify regions of high nutritional vulnerability, where disruptions in pollination could have serious implications for human health. For example, in Southeast Asia and parts of Latin America, almost 50 percent of plant-derived vitamin A production requires pollination.

Human micronutrient deficiencies are three times as prevalent in these and other global hotspots where micronutrient production is heavily dependent upon pollinators, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, India and the Middle East.

"This means pollinator declines could hit hardest on the very people who can afford to lose the least in terms of nutrition," Chaplin-Kramer said.

Taken as a whole, the study is the first of its kind to assess the relationship between nutrition and pollination across the globe.

"We need to set a new research agenda for nutrition, and pollination services are critical," added Jamie Gerber, one of the study's co-authors and co-director of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. "With growing concerns over how to feed a population fast approaching nine billion, we need to ensure that people are not only getting enough food but the nutrients necessary to lead healthy and productive lives.

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