A Hidden Hunger: How Bee Decline Can Hurt Humans Too
You've likely heard of the global decline in pollinators, a trend sparked by invasive parasites, climate change, and infamously harmful pesticides. Now a new study has revealed why more people should be trying to 'save the bees.' Their decline is hurting humans too, leaving a good number of developing countries at risk of malnutrition.
That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal PLOS One, which details the first concrete evidence of how the health of pollinator populations can directly influence human nutrition.
Researchers from the University of Vermont and Harvard University make the argument that a decline in organisms that keep crops prevalent and productive (pollinators) is leading to a decline in crop yields and nutrition, exacerbating the "hidden hunger" of vitamin and mineral deficiencies in third-world countries.
"The take-home is: pollinator declines can really matter to human health, with quite scary numbers for vitamin A deficiencies, for example," study co-lead Taylor Ricketts said in a statement.
He added that vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and increased death rates for diseases already rampant in undeveloped worlds - malaria being a lead concern.
That "hidden hunger," the team writes, is already affecting more than 25 percent of the world's citizens, contributing to the spread of disease, heightened child mortality, reduced IQ, and an exhausted working class. (Scroll to read on...)
"This is the first study that quantifies the potential human health impacts of animal pollinator declines," co-lead Samuel Myers added. "To evaluate whether pollinator declines will really affect human nutrition, you need to know what people are eating."
And that, pressed Ricketts, is exactly what the team looked at. By measuring what kinds of crops, be it vegetables or fruits, were supplementing or even sustaining the diets of various regions, the team was able to then determine if pollinator declines would impact the availability of vitamin A, calcium, folate, iron, and zinc sources for local human populations.
"We found really alarming effects in some countries for some nutrients and little to no effect elsewhere," Ricketts said.
And while that was expected for regions reliant on imports, even some of the poorest regions examined - among them parts of Zambia, Mozambique, Uganda and Bangladesh - still seemed perfectly fine.
Why? It really all came down to luck. While pollinator declines were associated strongest with mounting vitamin A deficiencies, some regions like Zambia simply had so much vitamin A in the standard diet already that the cut wasn't felt, even if crop quality and yields had suffered.
Unfortunately, not every region was so lucky. The team found that up to 56 percent of the studied populations were doomed to suffer from severe vitamin deficiencies if pollinators continue to disappear.
"Continued declines of pollinator populations could have drastic consequences for global public health," the team warned, making a call for greater conservation and recovery efforts even in the often forgotten and ignored parts of the world.
The United States, for instance, has already taken action to see their severely reduced honeybee populations restored. Likewise, Europe and Australia have adapted their own methods for keeping threatened populations healthy, introducing new breeding programs and protective plans.
However, undeveloped countries do not have the education nor the means to take this matter into their own hands, even as they struggle to survive off consequentially declining harvests.
Ricketts argues that with his team's results, action should be taken to make pollinator protection an international issue of human interest, not just one for insects and nature lovers.
"Ecosystem damage can damage human health," he said, "so conservation can be thought of as an investment in public health."
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