Your pumpkin-spice latte is not doing the world any favors.
Most essential staple food crops on the planet – like corn, wheat, rice, or soybeans – don't require pollinators. However, the changing appetites of the world have pushed global agriculture towards crops that rely on pollination by bees and other insects, such as almonds, coffee, citrus fruits, avocado, to name but a few. Paired with the growing dominance of monocultures and a lack of crop diversity, this dependence on pollinators could threaten global food security and economic stability through mass crop failure, according to a new study.
Reported in the journal Global Change Biology, scientists have analyzed around 50 years' worth of data for the first global assessment of how current trends in farming practices may be affecting pollinators, land use, and food security.
From 1961-2016, the world’s total agricultural area has boomed by 40.6 percent. The global area cultivated in crops that rely on pollination by bees and other insects expanded by almost 137 percent, with 16 of the 20 fastest-growing crops requiring pollination. Considering the alarming decline of the world’s insects, this is a risky game to play.
"Just a few months ago, the World Biodiversity Council IPBES revealed to the world that up to one million animal and plant species are being threatened with extinction, including many pollinators," Professor Robert Paxton, a biologist at MLU and one of the authors of the new study, explained in a statement.
Furthermore, the diversity of crops has not kept up with the growth of the world’s agricultural production. Monocultures, growing a single crop in a field at a time, result in huge swathes of homogeneous agricultural landscapes. Industrial farming and vast monocultures also decrease wider biodiversity and increase the use of pesticides that threaten pollinators.
The threats to food security are different around the world. Mapping of the data showed that the main cause for concern lies in developing and emerging economies where vast monocultures are grown for the global market. Some particular concerns were the pollinator-dependent soybean farms of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, as well as oil palm farming in Malaysia and Indonesia.
"The affected regions primarily produce crops for the rich industrial nations. If, for example, the avocado harvest in South America fails, people in Germany and other industrial nations may no longer be able to buy them," concludes Robert Paxton, who is also a member of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig.
It's a tall order, but the researchers argue their findings further highlight how the world's global food system needs to change.
"This work shows that you really need to look at this issue country by country and region by region to see what's happening because there are different underlying risks," said co-author David Inouye, professor at the University of Maryland. "The bottom line is that if you're increasing pollinator crops, you also need to diversify crops and implement pollinator-friendly management."