20 May 2009

World relies on endangered bees for 153 billion euros

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Precious insect pollinators hold an almighty 153 billion euros worldwide on their industrious wings for the main crops that feed the planet every year. If they all disappeared overnight, so would 9.5% of the total value of global agriculture production used for human food

Precious insect pollinators hold an almighty 153 billion euros worldwide on their industrious wings for the main crops that feed the planet every year. If they all disappeared overnight, so would 9.5% of the total value of global agriculture production used for human food.

Although bees are nowhere near becoming extinct any time altogether soon, as some media may have somewhat inaccurately prophesised, the sharp decline in their biodiversity is nevertheless deeply worrying. With its 14.2 billion euros tied to insect pollination per year, the EU looks highly vulnerable, even if East Asia is most at risk with an eye-watering 51.5 billion euros. The USA, Canada and Bermuda figure resembles that of the EU most closely, with a combined insect pollination value of 14.4 billion euros. But Europe must beware even more, if you think that non-EU countries rely on insect pollination for a further total of 7.8 billion euros.

Middle East Asia, Central Asia, East Asia, North Africa and West Africa stand out on the high vulnerability list, as it appears from a study about the potential economic impact of insect pollinator decline, which is about to be published in the January issue of “Ecological Economics” journal. One of the authors of the research, Dr Josef Settele from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Halle, Germany, is also the coordinator of the ALARM project (www.alarmproject.net) which aims at outlining the most urgent countermeasures to map and stem pollinator decline.

“This is an analysis on a global scale, relating to the year 2005”, Dr Settele says. Assuming all insect pollinators are lost, the researchers have also calculated the money that would be needed to be spent to replace them. “We reckon that, in order to replace this service by other means, such as artificial pollination which is much more expensive and difficult, the world would need to spend between 190 and 310 billion euros”, Dr Settele warns. Of course, the price of produce would increase dramatically as a consequence.

The study, called “Economic valuation of the vulnerability of world agriculture confronted with pollinator decline”, has used FAO statistics for its economics. It also confirms that the production of 84% of crop species cultivated in Europe depend directly on insect pollinators.

Fruits and vegetables turn out to be especially affected, with a loss estimated at 50 billion euros each, followed by edible oilseed crops with 39 billion euros. Scientists also found that the average value of crops that depend on insect pollinators for their production was on average much higher than that of the crops not pollinated by insects, such as cereals or sugar cane.

As far as the yearly rate of the bee loss goes, Dr Settele thinks it is impossible to quantify it with current means. Yet the trend, he says, is “extremely worrying because we could be about to lose the vast majority of the most specialized pollinator species across Europe”. Mainly, we are talking about bees here, followed by hover flies, butterflies and moths.

The point is, our understanding of why many bee species are in danger is still patchy, explains Dr Simon Potts, a Principal Research Fellow from the University of Reading, UK, who is also a scientific adviser of a new project launched outside Europe by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) together with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to better protect pollinating bees, bats and birds in Brazil, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan and South Africa.

“It’s quite shocking to see that in most countries a large proportion of our bee species is under severe threat”, Dr Potts says. “a 10% loss in bees is not an unrealistic future prospect for Europe; and a 10% loss of insect pollination could have huge economic consequences and also negative impacts on the pollination of the wide variety of wild flowering plants. There are 2,250 bee species in Europe, and many more in the tropics, but the general principles of pollinator conservation here in Europe can also be transferred to the tropics. If you grow coffee in areas where there are fragments of forest, you get better quality coffee and a better yield, because there are more pollinators. In the GEF project we try and work with farmers to get them to see the economic value of that. We have demonstration farms for this purpose”.

Dr Potts, together with his close collaborator Stuart Roberts, aim to put together a European bee red list, although, there is still quite a long way to go to assemble it properly. In Germany, for instance, “there are 560 bee species and 289 of them are on the red list”, Mr Roberts says. “In Switzerland, 42% of species are in danger. In Finland the percentage is 45%, whereas in the Netherlands 54% of all bee species are under threat.”

All in all, 9 European countries have so far provided their own full assessment, and on this basis the average number of species under threat, Mr Roberts concludes, “is just under 45%. Loss of habitat is believed to be the biggest driver everywhere”. If any future mapping of world bees reveals even higher losses, there is going to be some very hard thinking to be done. Hopefully, this may happen well before we all have to recur to some horrendously expensive and laborious artificial pollination systems.

(28 May 2009)


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