BURLINGTON, Vt., Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Declining pollinator populations could push a quarter of the world's population back toward malnutrition, especially in developing countries where poverty is common and food is scarce.
Researchers at the University of Vermont and the Harvard School of Public Health set out to determine exactly how declining populations of pollinators, like bees, would affect food consumption in countries around the world. By comparing regional diets with the pollination requirements of staple crops, scientists were able to predict how declining pollinator populations might affect public health.
"The take-home is: Pollinator declines can really matter to human health, with quite scary numbers for vitamin A deficiencies, for example," study co-author Taylor Ricketts, a researcher at Vermont, explained in a press release, "which can lead to blindness and increase death rates for some diseases, including malaria."
In most of the developed world, diets are (even if they're not entirely healthy) plenty diverse and well fortified with all the necessary vitamins and nutrients. But in many less developed nations, diets barely suffice to keep populations stocked with the proper micronutrients, like vitamin A and folate. For more vulnerable countries like Mozambique and Uganda, a significant decline in pollinator populations could greatly affect the health of their inhabitants, leading to an uptick in malnutrition and diseases like malaria.
The new research is the first of its kind. Previous research has analyzed the effects of fewer pollinators on crop yields and the availability of food and nutrients.
"But to evaluate whether pollinator declines will really affect human nutrition, you need to know what people are eating," co-author Samuel Myers of Harvard said.
Combining pollinator data with regional eating habits allows scientists to pinpoint more precisely the potential effects of pollinator decline in the developing world. Zambia, for example, would be less affected than other similar countries, as its diet includes a surplus of vitamin A. Conversely, a country like Mozambique could suffer increases in infectious disease and incidents of blindness if bees and other pollinators continue to decline.
"Continued declines of pollinator populations could have drastic consequences for global public health," the team of researchers concluded in their paper.
The new study was published in the journal PLOS ONE on Jan. 9.