What do pollinator declines mean for human health?

Human activity is transforming natural systems and endangering the ecosystem services they provide, which has consequences for human health. This study quantified the human health impact of losses to pollination, providing the first global analysis of its kind. The researchers say pollinator declines could increase the global disease burden and recommend increased monitoring of pollinators in at-risk regions, including Eastern and Central Europe.

Human activity is accelerating the loss of biodiversity. Pollinators are experiencing particular declines, including insects like bees as well as birds (e.g. hummingbirds) and mammals (e.g. fruit bats). In the past 10 years, the number and species diversity of both managed and wild pollinators has decreased.

These declines are of direct concern for human health. This is because the work of pollinators is critical for growing crops — pollinators contribute to yield for an estimated 35% of global food production. They are also directly responsible for up to 40% of the global supply of certain nutrients, including vitamin A, which is important for growth and development, and folic acid, which is essential for bodily function and cannot be synthesised by humans. Pollinator loss could therefore not only reduce energy intake, but also threaten population health.

If all pollinators were eliminated, global fruit supplies would decline by 23%, vegetables by 16% and nuts and seeds by 22%. Seventy-one million people in low-income countries could become deficient in vitamin A and a further 2.2 billion already consuming below the average would experience further declines in supply. For folic acid, 173 million people may become newly deficient in the vitamin and a further 1.23 billion already deficient would experience further declines.

Changes in food and nutrient intake were linked to risk of three groups of disease: noncommunicable (non-infectious, chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease), communicable (transmissible diseases such as TB and influenza) and malnutrition-related (e.g. vitamin deficiencies like rickets), using the Global Burden of Disease 2010 risk assessment framework. Global deaths from non-communicable and malnutrition-related diseases were estimated to increase by 1.42 million (2.7%) every year, and ‘disability-adjusted life years’ (DALYs: years lost due to poor health, disability or early death) would increase by 27 million (1.1%) each year. The researchers published a table of the DALY burden of disease impacts for each of the 156 different countries, split between in-country and imported sources, to show how much of the burden is due to local pollinator declines.

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