Numerous species of bees, butterflies and other pollinators are fast hurtling towards extinction – and hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of food crops will be affected if nothing is done about it, a new report from the United Nations has warned.

The more than 20,000 species of pollinators play a critical role in the annual food supply. But two of five species of bees, butterflies and pollinating critters are on the way to becoming extinct, with their vertebrate counterparts, such as bats and hummingbirds, only slightly better off with one out of six facing extinction.

"Without pollinators, many of us would no longer be able to enjoy coffee, chocolate and apples, among many other foods that are part of our daily lives," says Simon Potts, biodiversity and ecosystems professor at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. Potts is also the co-chair of the two-year assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

More than 75 percent of food crops worldwide greatly depend on pollination by insects and other animals. Global crops directly affected by these pollinators amount to $235 billion to $577 billion, with a 300 percent increase in volume of agricultural production that depends on pollination in the last half century.

The problem is one cannot pinpoint a single culprit. "Their (wild pollinators) decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change,” says IPBES vice-chair and renowned British ecological scientist Robert Watson.

Among the more controversial ones are neonicotinoid insectides, which threaten pollinators around the globe but whose long-term impacts remain unknown. A groundbreaking study showed they negatively affect wild bees, but the consequences for honeybees was less conclusive.

The assessment report, released on Feb. 26 and which analyzed many existing scientific studies, gained approval from a congress of 124 member nations in the fourth plenary meeting of the IPBES in Kuala Lumpur.

The matter with dwindling pollinator populations is deemed fixable, and actions can be done on the local level.

"There are relatively simple, relatively inexpensive mechanisms for turning the trend around for native pollinators," argues co-author David Inouye from the University of Maryland, who added that England already had two wild bumblebee species become extinct while the United States lost one.

Among the challenges, particularly in the United States, is that massive portions of farmland are devoted to a single crop, or the practice of monoculture. Wildflowers, the food for these pollinators, are fast disappearing. Grasslands are also gracious hosts to wild pollinators, yet in Europe 97 percent already disappeared since the Second World War.

The report made several recommendations to protect pollinators, including creating diversity in agricultural and urban landscapes, supporting traditional crop rotation and related indigenous practices, knowledge exchange between farmers and experts and enhancing pathogen control in bee husbandry.

“As we work towards food security, it is important to approach the challenge with a consideration of the environmental impacts that drive the issue,” says Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Photo: Natesh Ramasamy | Flickr

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