Pre­serv­ing pol­li­na­tors is im­per­a­tive for food se­cu­rity

One way to make suf­fi­cient food avail­able with­out lead­ing to ad­verse ef­fects on health is to keep pol­li­na­tors alive.

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - By Mo­jisola Oje­bode

The Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion (FAO) of the United Na­tions es­ti­mates the world's pop­u­la­tion will reach 9.1 bil­lion by 2050. This un­der­scores the need to grow more food to feed such a huge pop­u­la­tion. As na­ture will have it, hu­mans need the par­tic­i­pa­tion of other liv­ing or­gan­isms to make this hap­pen. Hence, an­i­mal pol­li­na­tors, which in­clude in­sects (bees, but­ter­flies, wasps, moths and bee­tles, among oth­ers) and birds, are im­por­tant parts of our ecosys­tem.

As a child, I re­mem­ber walk­ing through flow­er­ing plants that were grown in pots around my home in La­gos, Nige­ria. I would pick some sweet-smelling, ed­i­ble ones to make juice. Bees and other in­sects en­joy these flow­ers too and feed on the nec­tar – a sweet fluid se­creted by flow­ers. In the process of suck­ing nec­tar, they help pol­li­nate plants and make food avail­able.

Pol­li­na­tion is a process that leads to the cre­ation of new seeds, which grow into new plants. Flow­er­ing plants have a male part that pro­duces pol­lens, and a fe­male re­pro­duc­tive part that con­tains a sticky top called the stigma. For pol­li­na­tion to oc­cur, the pol­lens must be moved from a sta­men – the male re­pro­duc­tive part of a flower – to the stigma, ei­ther of the same plant or a dif­fer­ent plant. Most plants rely on an­i­mal pol­li­na­tors or the wind, in some cases, to pol­li­nate them.

Based on my work – which in­volves de­vel­op­ing healthy and en­vi­ron­ment­friendly or­ganic pes­ti­cides – with farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties in South­west Nige­ria, I know that many farm­ers have re­ported a dis­turb­ing de­cline in soil nu­tri­ents. This could be at­trib­uted to the loss of soil or­gan­isms aris­ing from the use of syn­thetic pes­ti­cides. As a re­sult, the farm­ers of­ten have to ad­dress the soil-nu­tri­ent de­fi­ciency by ap­ply­ing chem­i­cal fer­til­izer.

The to­tal land area of the world ex­ceeds 13 bil­lion hectares. Ac­cord­ing to the FAO, a much smaller frac­tion – about 1.4 bil­lion hectares – is arable, suit­able for crop pro­duc­tion. The re­main­ing por­tions of the global land­mass are ei­ther toxic, de­fi­cient in nu­tri­ents re­quired by plants, too wet or too dry, too shal­low or too rocky. Some parts are per­ma­nently frozen.

The need to feed the world's teem­ing pop­u­la­tion has put so much pres­sure on the avail­able arable land. As plants take up nu­tri­ents from the soil, nu­tri­ent de­ple­tion oc­curs. More so, loss of fer­tile top soil due to wa­ter or wind ero­sion, wa­ter­log­ging, loss of soil or­gan­isms, ex­ten­sive cul­ti­va­tion on mar­ginal land, poor ma­nur­ing, over­graz­ing, ad­verse weather and mis­use or ex­ces­sive use of in­or­ganic fer­til­iz­ers may ac­cel­er­ate soil degra­da­tion.

Chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers can also se­ri­ously de­plete the nu­tri­ent con­tent of food. A twelve-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion showed that foods grown us­ing chem­i­cals had 16 times the amount of ni­trate (car­cino­genic con­cen­tra­tion), com­pared to those grown with­out chem­i­cals (or­ganic). And the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil, an Amer­i­can non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, states that six out of seven, and nine out of the top 15, foods with can­cer-caus­ing risks come from food with high amounts of ni­trates from fer­til­iz­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO), ap­prox­i­mately 14 mil­lion new cases of can­cer were recorded in 2012. The num­ber of new cases is ex­pected to rise by 70 per cent over the next two decades. And ap­prox­i­mately 70 per cent of can­cer deaths world­wide oc­cur in low- and mid­dlein­come coun­tries.

In the face of scarce re­sources, and nu­mer­ous com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties, de­vel­op­ing coun­tries will strug­gle with the health­care chal­lenges of a grow­ing num­ber of can­cer pa­tients if mea­sures are not taken to curb its in­ci­dence. One way to make suf­fi­cient food avail­able with­out lead­ing to ad­verse ef­fects on health is to keep pol­li­na­tors alive. Pol­li­na­tors have eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural im­por­tance. They are very im­por­tant con­trib­u­tors to food pro­duc­tion and nu­tri­tional se­cu­rity glob­ally.

An es­ti­mated 300,000 species of flow­er­ing plants re­quire an­i­mal pol­li­na­tors. More than 70 per cent of the world's top 100 crop species are pol­li­nated by bees. 90 per cent of hu­mans world­wide feed on these food items, which in­clude onion, okra, palm oil, tomato, ap­ple, wal­nut, av­o­cado, peach, green beans, orchid plant, pear, car­rot and grape, among oth­ers.

How­ever, the global pop­u­la­tion of pol­li­na­tors has de­clined. One of the rea­sons for the de­cline is the wide­spread use of pes­ti­cides to in­crease food crop pro­duc­tion. The United States En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) in­di­cated that Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der (CDC), which causes sud­den loss of worker bees from hives, may be caused by pes­ti­cides, pathogens, par­a­sites and poor nutri­tion. Pes­ti­cides have also af­fected soil micro­organ­isms.

But un­for­tu­nately, nei­ther famers nor pol­i­cy­mak­ers in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries have shown much con­cern about the ad­verse ef­fects of chem­i­cals on soil or­gan­isms and pol­li­na­tors.

Pes­ti­cides dif­fer in the ways they af­fect bees and other pol­li­na­tors. For ex­am­ple, con­tact pes­ti­cides sprayed on plants can kill pol­li­na­tors such as bees and but­ter­flies when they land on the sur­face of treated plants. Mean­while, sys­temic pes­ti­cides

added into the soil or onto seeds can move up into the stem, leaves, nec­tar and pol­lens of plants. Most pes­ti­cides are not pol­li­na­tor friendly. Soil in­sects such as ground bee­tles get killed by di­rect con­tact with pes­ti­cides. Other fly­ing pol­li­na­tor in­sects and birds die through ex­po­sure to pes­ti­cide con­tam­i­nated fruits, poll en grains, nec­tar or leaves.

Mil­lions of liveli­hoods and hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars' worth of food sup­plies is threat­ened as the pop­u­la­tion of pol­li­na­tor species de­creases dras­ti­cally. By im­pli­ca­tion, this means im­por­tant di­etary sources of vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, such as fruits, veg­eta­bles, nuts, seeds and oils – which are of­ten prod­ucts of pol­li­na­tion – are at risk of be­ing scarce.

In South­east Asia, up to 50 per cent of the pro­duc­tion of plant-de­rived vi­ta­min A re­quires pol­li­na­tion. Pump­kin and mango are among top crops for vi­ta­min A pro­duc­tion in many pol­li­na­tion-de­pen­dent coun­tries. More so, okra in In­dia and Thai­land, Sour cherry and apri­cot in Iran, plum in Ro­ma­nia, peach in Mex­ico are im­por­tant pol­li­na­tor-de­pen­dent sources of vi­ta­min A.

How­ever, other es­sen­tial mi­cronu­tri­ents such as iron and fo­late have vary­ing lev­els of de­pen­dence on pol­li­na­tors across Africa, Cen­tral Amer­ica and Asia.

A re­cent study by Re­becca Chap­linKramer, Lead Sci­en­tist at the Nat­u­ral Cap­i­tal Project of Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, shows that Vi­ta­min A de­fi­ciency is nearly three times likely to oc­cur in re­gions that are highly de­pen­dent on pol­li­na­tors. These coun­tries in­clude South­east Asia, In­dia, Cen­tral and South­ern Africa. Mean­while USA, Europe, China and Ja­pan are places that have re­ceived the great­est eco­nomic value from pol­li­na­tion ser­vices. Hence, both de­vel­oped and de­vel­op­ing coun­tries ben­e­fit one way or an­other from pol­li­na­tors.

There are food crops, in­clud­ing fruits and veg­eta­bles, that do not solely de­pend on an­i­mal pol­li­na­tors. For in­stance, car­rot, sweet pota­toes, let­tuce, spinach are pol­li­na­tor-in­de­pen­dent crops, al­though they all re­quire some form of pol­li­na­tion for seed pro­duc­tion. This sug­gests that re­duc­tion in pol­li­na­tion can still af­fect prop­a­ga­tion of these crops.

In­stead of the cur­rently used chem­i­cal ap­proach to crop pro­duc­tion, de­vel­op­ing coun­tries should en­cour­age or­ganic farm­ing. An­other way to be more cre­ative is to have na­tional treat­ment fa­cil­ity where do­mes­tic sewage could be treated and re­cy­cled into nu­tri­ent-rich or­ganic ma­te­ri­als known as biosolids. These could be made avail­able to farm­ers to boost soil nu­tri­ent and stim­u­late plant growth, in ad­di­tion to green and com­post ma­nure.

With this ap­proach, the risk to killing pol­li­na­tors as a re­sult of ex­po­sure to chem­i­cals could be greatly re­duced.

A two-year study con­ducted and re­leased by the In­ter­na­tional Sci­ence-Pol­icy Plat­form on Bio­di­ver­sity and Ecosys­tem Ser­vices (IPBES), the Germany-based in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal body which as­sesses the state of bio­di­ver­sity, high­lights ways to ef­fec­tively safe­guard the de­clin­ing pop­u­la­tion of pol­li­na­tors, which are im­per­illed mostly by neon­i­coti­noid pes­ti­cide use, dis­eases and pests, and cli­mate change. Spe­cific steps to se­cure pol­li­na­tors in­clude re­duc­ing ex­po­sure of pol­li­na­tors to pes­ti­cides by lim­it­ing their us­age, seek­ing al­ter­na­tive forms of pest con­trol, and adopt­ing a range of ap­pli­ca­tion prac­tices and tech­nolo­gies to re­duce pes­ti­cide drift or the un­in­ten­tional dif­fu­sion of pes­ti­cides.

Education and ex­change of knowl­edge among farm­ers, sci­en­tists, in­dus­tries, com­mu­ni­ties and the gen­eral public should be pri­or­i­tized. These in­clude sup­port­ing tra­di­tional prac­tices such as crop rotation and plant­ing of cover crops. There should be a com­bi­na­tion of sci­en­tific knowl­edge with indigenous prac­tices. If our de­sire is to make suf­fi­cient nu­tri­tious food avail­able, we should be look­ing to­wards pre­serv­ing the pol­li­na­tors and pro­mot­ing non­harm­ful ap­proaches to pest con­trol. The lesser the chem­i­cals in­volved in food pro­duc­tion, the higher the ten­dency to feed and nour­ish our teem­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Mo­jisola Oje­bode

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