Three out of four foods we consume—from coffee and chocolate to apples and almonds—rely on pollinators like bees and butterflies. And 40% of those insect pollinators are now at risk of extinction.
In the first-ever global report on pollinators, researchers from around the world spent two years looking at 3,000 studies on the decline of bees, beetles, butterflies, bats, birds, and others.
The problem is happening everywhere. "This isn't something that's just impacting say, honeybees in the United States," says Berry Brosi, a biologist and ecologist from Emory University and one of 77 international experts who worked on the assessment for the United Nations. "It's impacting vertebrate and invertebrate, managed and wild pollinators, and pollinators in really every geographic region that we've looked at."
It's also already starting to have impacts on the food supply. In parts of China—especially where pesticides have been overused—farmers are hand-pollinating apple crops because there aren't enough natural pollinators around to do the job. In California, where almond farmers rely on a mind-boggling 80 billion bees each year to pollinate crops, the cost of renting out those bees quintupled in the mid-2000s as bee colonies struggled.
As the problem gets worse, it's likely to affect the poorest countries most by driving up the cost of the healthiest foods. "I think there is an emerging equity issue going on here," Brosi says. "If we do see price increases in a lot of the fruits and nuts and seeds and vegetables that are pollinator-dependent—and those foods really give us a lot of the micronutrients that we need in our diet—certainly people with more economic purchasing power are going to be able to include more of those foods in their diet."
Crops that are also important sources of income in developing countries, like coffee or the cacao used to make chocolate, also depend on pollinators. In total, around the world, crops that rely on pollinators are worth as much as $577 billion a year.
Even losing a single pollinator can affect the productivity of farms and the health of ecosystems. But thousands of insects are now at risk. Sixteen percent of vertebrate pollinators, like birds and bats, are also facing possible extinction.
The report lays out a long list of reasons why this is happening, from the loss of habitat to increased pesticide use and even global trade (the more pollinators move around the world, the more likely they are to spread disease).
"There are multiple drivers that are causing pollinator declines, so we can't just only respond on one of those drivers and expect the problem to totally go away," says Brosi. But some of the issues might be easier to tackle than others.
"I do think that pesticides are actually relatively easy to regulate compared to many of the other problems," he says. "Pollinators are threatened by habitat loss, and that's something that we can and should do something about, but it's often a lot harder to address in a comprehensive way."
It will take a global effort to solve the problem, the researchers say. And it's something that has to happen soon. "If we don't do anything to address it, I am very concerned about how it will impact the food supply," Brosi says.