PANNA: Pollinator Declines Could Increase Food Prices


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Pollinator Declines Could Increase Food Prices
July 13, 2001

A global shortage of bees and other insects that pollinate plants is destroying crops around the world and could lead to far higher prices for fruits and vegetables, according to researchers at the University of Guelph, Canada. “The consumers are ultimately going to pay,” said Dr. Peter Kevan, an environmental biology professor at the university. “Instead of buying an apple for 30¢, you’ll end up paying $1.50 for it.” Pollinator populations have been hit hard by increased pesticide use in recent years, and much of their natural habitat, such as dead trees and old fence posts, have been destroyed to make room for more farmland, Dr. Kevan added.

In their report, published recently in the online journal Conservation Ecology, Dr. Kevan and Dr. Truman Phillips say that pollination systems in many agricultural areas today are threatened by an inadequate number or complete lack of sustainably-managed pollinators, either indigenous or imported.

Although concerns about pollinator shortages date back at least to Biblical times, their report is the first one to quantify the effects in economic terms. Their research does not pinpoint exactly how high food prices will rise, but rather presents a model for assessing the economic ramifications if birds, bees and other pollinators continue to disappear. Their economic analysis indicates that consumers of a commodity affected by a pollinator deficit may suffer since the commodity will likely cost more and become less available. At the same time, producers of affected commodities may experience crop declines but may also experience economic gains resulting from higher prices. The amount gained or lost by producers depends on the supply and demand curves.

Their research states that there is ample evidence to suggest the existence of pollinator declines and that such declines are affecting agricultural productivity. They conclude that the adverse economic effects of pollinator deficits on food prices must follow from on-farm considerations, but that the effects could be much broader. Although there is little data to work with, they state that security, trade and the global food supply could be in serious jeopardy if “pollinator abundance, diversity, and availability are not reversed.”

The team’s model, which is based on variables such as individual products, trade situations and market conditions, adds another level of clout to a long list of research that says deteriorating supplies of pollinators are ruining billions of dollars worth of food.

Pollinators such as bees, bats, butterflies and birds play a key role in agriculture, transferring pollen from one seed to another. It is a vital step in the production of most fruits and vegetables, as well as a handful of nuts. An under-pollinated apple usually means a smaller, less appealing apple.

Honey bees, which the Canadian Honey Council says are responsible for CAN$1-billion worth of produce each year, are one of the most affected species. In the province of Ontario in the mid-1980s, for example, there were 115,000 honey bee hives, producing nearly 60,000 bees apiece. Today, there are barely 80,000 hives, said Doug McRory of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

The amount of beekeepers who “rent” their bees to farmers is also down from recent years, forcing farmers to pay heftier fees for pollination. Cherry growers, for example, may have to make better offers this summer to rent pollination services, said Troy Fore, the executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation.

Dr. Ken Richards, a researcher with Canada’s Ministry of Agriculture, said the federal government is very aware of the shrinking number of pollinators, and is now gauging ways to measure the decline and find ways to halt it. “All sorts of things could possibly happen if we don’t look to start to take care of our pollinators.”

Sources: Peter G. Kevan and Truman P. Phillips “The Economic Impacts of Pollinator Declines: An Approach to Assessing the Consequences” Conservation Ecology 5(1):8, 2001 [journal only available online at]; Michael Friscolanti “Global bug shortage could end up costing shoppers” National Post June 7, 2001.

Contact: PANNA.

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