Pollinator decline puts tropical crops worldwide at risk

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A new study conducted by researchers from University College London (UCL) and the Natural History Museum found the decline of pollinators is putting popular tropical crops such as cocoa, coffee, mango and watermelon, at risk. Researchers confirmed that climate change and land use modification are two of the many causes.

The study created a model to explore which crops were most at risk until 2050 because of pollinator decline with the hope their findings will help agricultural and conservation communities.

“[I]t is expected that the tropics will experience the greatest risk to crop production from pollinator losses,” the study said. “Localized risk is highest and predicted to increase most rapidly, in regions of sub-Saharan Africa, northern South America, and Southeast Asia. Via pollinator loss alone, climate change and agricultural land use could be a risk to human well-being.”

The researchers gathered data from 1,507 agriculture sites and classified 3,080 species of insect pollinators around the world and found that three-quarters of the crops on Earth rely on insect pollination to some extent.

“As insects decline, due to being unable to cope with the interacting effects of climate change and land use, so too will the crops that rely on them as pollinators,” Dr. Joe Millard, lead author of the study, said. “In some cases, these crops could be pollinated by hand, but this would require more labor and more cost.”

According to the study, “localized risks are highest in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, northern South America, and south-east Asia,” but crops grown in the tropics are more susceptible to the relationship between land use and climate change. The cacao tree is particularly a vulnerable crop because the short-lived flowers it produces are pollinated almost exclusively by a certain type of midge, the Natural History Museum reported, but over production and climate change is causing the midge to be under threat.

“Climate change poses grave threats not only to the natural environment and biodiversity, but also to human well-being, as the loss of pollinators can threaten the livelihoods of people across the globe who depend on crops that depend on animal pollination,” Dr. Tim Newbold, senior author from the UCL Center for Biodiversity & Environment Research, UCL Biosciences, said.

Researchers said its “possible to breed varieties of these plants that can reproduce without pollinators” or use technological solutions, “like pollination by hand or through artificial means.” But the best way is to restore pollinators habitats through planting natural pollinator habitats around cropland, while reducing the effects of greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change, according to the study.

“Our findings underscore the urgent need to take global action to mitigate climate change, alongside efforts to slow down land use changes and protect natural habitats to avoid harming insect pollinators,” Newbold said.

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