High demand for avocados, coffee, and citrus fruits in Western countries is causing increased food insecurity around the world, according to a study published in the scientific journal Global Change Biology this week.
“Farmers are growing more crops that require pollination, such as fruits, nuts, and oil seeds, because there’s an increasing demand for them and they have a higher market value,” David Inouye, co-author of the study, told the Independent.
The researchers poured over crop cultivation data collected by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization from 1961 to 2016. The study found that the low population numbers of pollinating insect species could be an indication that yields from crop production are at a low or are failing altogether.
Overall, agricultural biodiversity has declined across the globe, and farmers are turning to monocropping — growing only one type of crop repeatedly in a specific area — to cater to the overwhelming demand for select produce. Soybean, rapeseed (for canola oil), and palm trees are amongst the most prevalent crops grown in monoculture farming.
These crops are an unreliable food source for insects because pollinator species can only derive nutrition from them during their short bloom period. Insect populations are declining globally, which is only worsened by the excessive use of fertilizers.
“This study points out that these current trends are not great for pollinators, and countries that diversify their agricultural crops are going to benefit more than those that expand with only a limited subset of crops,” Inouye explained.
As population numbers of pollinator species continue to decline, farmers are less likely to reap viable pollinator-dependent crops. Failure of these crops will undoubtedly contribute to greater food insecurity around the world, which presently affects over 800 million people worldwide.
Crop failure will likely have the greatest impact on poorer regions, but every part of the globe will be touched by its effects in some capacity, according to the study. The most unstable crops were found to be in South American countries, like Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, where rampant deforestation is occurring to make room for growing soybean farms.
The global increase of soy production is “problematic,” Professor Marcelo Aizen, the study’s lead, said. “Numerous natural and semi-natural habitats, including tropical and subtropical forests and meadows, have been destroyed for soy fields,” he continued.
The excessive farming of palm trees, grown for their oil, in Malaysia and Indonesia showed similar results.
As urban development continues to shrink the size of farmland, other countries, like the United Kingdom, have also become over-dependent on pollinators — including bees, wasps, and butterflies — due to swapping rice and wheat harvests for more in-demand crops that largely rely on pollination. Germany, France, Denmark, and Finland are also suffering from the effects of the transition to pollinator-dependent crops.
The researchers said that they hope their findings will push legislators to counteract these agricultural processes by limiting the use of insecticides and requiring the planting of flower strips and edge rows to support pollinator species. Consumers can also help to offset these effects by purchasing items that promote biodiversity, like shade-grown coffee.
“The bottom line is that if you’re increasing pollinator crops, you also need to diversify crops and implement pollinator-friendly management,” Inouye told the Independent.
Without this balance, the United Nations’ goal of ending world hunger by 2030 is unlikely to be achieved.