Why losing our pollinators means losing our health

By Samuel S Myers, Director of the Planetary Health Alliance and Patrick Frick, Global Coordinator of the Global Commons Alliance.


It’s no secret to most that we’re living amidst a worsening climate crisis. Less well understood is the devastation unfolding in the global commons – the carefully balanced natural systems, including biodiverse ecosystems, that have kept our planet liveable and healthy for millennia. We all depend upon these global commons for life.

Myers and colleagues have just released new research outlining this dependency in concrete terms. The research shows that the rapid decline of pollinators – bees, butterflies and other insects that feed on flowers – around the world is causing serious declines in human health. We now know that around half a million people are already dying each year because we don’t have enough bees or other pollinators. 

As we lose more of the insects that pollinate healthy foods like fruit, vegetables, and nuts, human deaths from heart disease, stroke and some cancers are set to increase globally, and not just in the most vulnerable places and communities which typically bear the awful brunt of climate impacts.

Science is confirming what indigenous communities have known all along: when we harm other life on Earth, we harm ourselves – we are one and the same. This understanding is the basis for the rapidly emerging interdisciplinary field of Planetary Health.

Loss of pollinators is not the only way that disrupting Nature imperils our own health. Rising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are lowering the nutrient content of staple food crops and pushing hundreds of millions of people into nutrient deficiencies. Pollution of air, water, and soil causes roughly nine million deaths/year. Biodiversity loss, deforestation, incursion into wildlife habitat, and climate change are all driving new patterns of infectious diseases. This is an urgent global health crisis.

That’s why the Conference on Biodiversity – COP15 taking place in Montreal right now is so significant – it’s a once in a decade opportunity for governments to agree a plan to halt and reverse further declines in life-sustaining biodiversity before it’s too late. It’s also a key moment to wake up the world to the fact that ‘nature’ is not just a nice-to-have. It’s fundamental for a healthy life.

Today, 3-5% of fruit, vegetable and nut production is being lost due to inadequate pollination. That may not sound like a lot, but these reductions are enough to cause half a million deaths per year. Looking forward, if we are to design a global food system that optimizes human health while also protecting the biosphere, we will need to dramatically increase production of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. With pollinators in decline, it is not clear we will be able to do so.

Livelihoods are at risk too. Myers and colleagues found that in three case study countries, 10-30% of agricultural income is being lost from depressed yields caused by inadequate pollination. Those losses come on top of brutal impacts from the climate crisis, which are already disrupting harvests on multiple continents from droughts and floods.

It’s time for radical change.

As part of the Planetary Health movement, clinicians and public health practitioners are articulating the same message: we can no longer safeguard human health and wellbeing into the future while the natural life support systems we depend on are crumbling under the weight of our ecological footprint. We need a new trajectory, and the CBD COP 15 is an opportunity for the world’s nations to map out that path.

With respect to pollinators, our ecologist colleagues have already mapped out a suite of “pollinator friendly practices” that would make an enormous difference. Planting hedgerows; increasing the practice of intercropping – where more than one crop is planted in the same field; protecting the habitats and forage that pollinators rely on; and reducing the use of pesticides – particularly neonicotinoids – are just a few examples of decisive nature-positive actions governments, cities, farmers, companies, investors and communities can support right now.

A strong global biodiversity framework at COP15 is about protecting Nature to protect ourselves. But deal or no deal, everyone can make a difference by speaking up for the bees and helping to make space for them and other life forms to thrive. Companies, in particular, should be preparing to set science-based targets for nature, alongside those they already have for climate, beginning with assessing and disclosing their impacts and dependencies on nature.

In the UK, where 97% of species-rich grassland has been lost in the last century, the National Trust recently announced it is reseeding meadows with wildflowers. But it’s not just doing this for the bees. Another key reason: because seeing flowers in the meadows will bring human visitors joy.

All of us have a centuries-old bond with nature, no matter how much time we spend in the fields or on farms. That bond is awakened within us every time we witness the beauty of nature. How many of us have been captivated by the glimmering wings of a passing butterfly, or stopped, fascinated, to watch a bee diving into a flower?

Feeling joy is a key part of living a healthy life, just as much as fruit and nuts are. Let’s strive for all that so that we can have a healthy planet and healthy people for generations to come.