Supporting and enhancing pollinators could help stabilize production of key crops like oilseeds and fruit and reduce the kind of uncertainty that drives food price spikes, new research has shown.
Scientists at the University of Reading analyzed years of data on the poorly understood effect of pollinators on crop yield stability. They found that yields from plants visited by bees and other pollinators were 32% lower than plants grown without pollinators.
The study published in the journal Ecological Letterssuggests that pollinators can help mitigate supply problems and market shocks causing global price spikes like those seen this year by keeping food supplies stable.
The release marks the start of Bees’ Needs Week (18-24 July), a UK Government initiative promoting pollinators and their benefits, this year encouraging people to take five simple actions to support pollinators .
A launch event, led by scientists from the University of Reading, is taking place today (Monday 18 July) at the Tower of London, with a Superbloom attraction made up of 20 million wildflowers in the ditch being shown to the public throughout the summer.
dr Jake Bishop, a crop science researcher at the University of Reading who led the study, said: “Our results suggest that pollinator conservation has a dual benefit of reducing variability in food supply and overall supply elevated.
“Stable and predictable production of nutritious food is a necessity for farmers and for global food security. We are now seeing that instability or shocks across the food system can lead to dramatic increases in food prices.
“Research has revealed another reason why pollinators are so important to our planet and to so many families struggling to sustain themselves with adequate, safe and nutritious food.
“Pollinators are particularly important in the production of fruit and vegetable crops. About half of the experiments we analyzed tested the effect of real pollinator populations on real crop fields, so our results illustrate the benefits that pollinators currently offer.”
While the benefits of pollinators on crop yield are well known, their effect on plant stability has been poorly understood.
The new research combined the results of more than 200 previous experiments comparing crop yields with and without insect pollination. The study focused on three globally important and representative crop species: field bean, oilseed rape and apples.
The study tested the effects of pollination on yield stability within individual crops and fields, as well as over larger areas. Insect pollination has made yields more similar between flowers on a plant, between individual plants, areas within fields, or between fields.
The stabilizing effect of pollination is believed to be due to a ceiling effect, with yield increases from insect pollination hitting a ceiling due to limitations on other resources that support plant growth, such as soil nutrients or access to water. This creates an elevated and more stable baseline against which there is less variability in yield.
The current rise in food prices is being driven by a number of actors, including high oil prices and Ukraine’s limited ability to export its products after being invaded by Russia. Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter of sunflower oil, providing around 10% of world wheat exports.
A previous rise in food prices in 2007-08, when the price of major global food crops roughly doubled, is believed to have been due in part to losses in wheat production, which amount to a loss of about 4.6% globally.
About the bee need week
The Bee Needs Week is run annually by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The Tower of London Superbloom attraction was designed by Historical Royal Palaces to attract pollinators by creating a thriving new natural landscape in an otherwise urban area. Open all summer, 20 million seeds have now bloomed in the Tower’s moat, with the flowers providing a rich source of food and nectar for pollinators to create a new habitat for biodiversity in the heart of London.
Scientists from the University of Reading will host an exhibition outside the Tower of London on Monday 18 July where they will answer visitors’ questions and share their extensive knowledge of pollinators.