Two-thirds of crop species in cultivation today rely on pollinators

A major issue for all of the world’s developing countries today, and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is that of increased and sustainable food production. With the world’s population now at 7 billion (and growing), this is an issue of great concern and one that affects many aspects of conservation and the environment. Hunger, primarily due to poverty, is one of the greatest challenges to conservation in the developing world. Today over 1 billion people face hunger everyday. Ironically many of these malnourished people are rural subsistence farmers living within or adjacent to natural habitats with high biodiversity. How can we reconcile the conservation of biodiversity and the production of sufficient nutritious food for the planet’s growing population? This is one of the questions that drives much of my work as a scientist: finding sustainable solutions.

[quote]One in three bites of food can be attributed to a pollinator[/quote]  This is a paradigm widely touted by scientists (including myself), policy-makers and ecologists today. An overlooked ecosystem service, pollination is essential to humanity. Many crops depend on wild insect pollination to set fruit/produce seed. In total, around two-thirds of crop species in cultivation today rely on pollinators.

Xylocopa on Pigeonpea by D. Martins
Xylocopa on Pigeonpea by D. Martins

In Africa, pollinators are primarily wild insects that travel between farms and natural habitats, and are extremely vulnerable to habitat loss and destruction. Pollinators intimately link wild species with basic human livelihoods. Conserving pollinators justifies conservation of small species-rich habitats, such as forest patches, and contributes to food security and livelihoods of rural communities living close to nature, often times alongside critically endangered species.

The relationships between insects and flowers are at once ancient, beautifully intricate and correspondingly fragile. Nowhere is this diversity of species and partnerships more evident than in and around tropical forests. Thousands of species, most of them as yet undescribed and many of them rare or threatened, call these forests their home. In East Africa, many of these forests today persist only as isolated patches on mountains, following increasingly arid conditions on the African continent as well as recent forest clearing. Some of these forest patches have been recognized as global biodiversity hotspots, such as the Eastern Arc Mountains of Kenya and Tanzania, which include the last stronghold of charismatic species like the African Violet (Saintpaulia teitensis), a plant that is the basis of a huge global ornamental plant industry today worth billions of dollars.

One direct yet under-appreciated link between forest fragments and rural agriculture is through pollinators. Many crops in East African require pollination, and most pollinators in East Africa that visit crops are wild insects. Saving pollinators justifies conservation of small species-rich habitats, such as forest patches, by contributing to food security and rural livelihoods of the communities around them.

However, given negative attitudes towards insects, many rural farmers and other members of communities adjacent to forests fail to appreciate the importance of pollinating insects. Farmers often kill insects that visit flowers through sheer ignorance and lack of information about the necessity of pollination. Poor habitat management and direct destruction through clearing of natural vegetation, burning of trees for charcoal and overgrazing also impact pollinators and the resources they depend on. This directly reduces crop yields and threatens food security.

The challenge today is to produce food more intensively as well as more sustainably to feed a growing population. Many of the crops pollinated by wild insects are rich in nutrients, including essential vitamins and micronutrients. In this sense, pollinators are essential not just for food security, but equally important for nutritional security and sustainable development.

Saving small patches of habitat and increasing the understanding and appreciation of pollinators represent direct ways of improving food security and alleviating poverty through increased crop yields. It is in the hands of rural farmers, and in fact all of us both directly and indirectly, that the future of so many habitats in Kenya lies. Subsistence farmers need to be engaged as partners in conservation. The beauty of pollination is that it really is where a strong and clear link can be drawn between human livelihoods, sustainable agriculture and protection of natural areas, and the myriad species they contain.

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