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Pollinators stabilize the production of food crops

According to a new study led by the University of Reading, supporting and enhancing pollinators such as bees could help stabilize the production of important crops like oilseeds and fruits, reducing the uncertainties that often cause food prices to rise.

The analysis revealed that there was 32 percent less variation in the yields of plants visited by bees and other pollinators than in those grown in the absence of pollinators. Thus, pollinators could help mitigate supply issues and market shocks that cause global price spikes, by holding food supplies steady.

“Our findings suggest that preserving pollinators provides a double benefit, reducing fluctuations in food supplies as well as boosting supplies in the first place,” said study lead author Jake Bishop, a crop scientist at the University of Reading. “Stable and predictable production of nutritious food is a necessity for farmers and for global food security. We are seeing right now that instability or shocks across the food system can lead to dramatic increases in food price.”

“The research has revealed another reason why pollinators are so important to our planet, and to so many families who are struggling to feed themselves with sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. Pollinators are particularly important in the production of fruit and vegetable crops. Around half of the experiments we analyzed were testing the effect of real pollinator populations in real crop fields so our results illustrate the benefits that pollinators are currently providing.”

Dr. Bishop and his colleagues assessed the results of over 200 previous experiments that compared the yield of three crop plants – faba beans, oilseed rape, and apples – with and without insect pollination, and concluded that insect pollination consistently made yields more similar between flowers on a plant, between individual plants, between areas within fields, and between fields. 

This stabilizing effect of pollination is likely due to a ceiling effect, whereby yield increases resulting from insect pollination hits an upper limit due to limitations of other resources which support crop growth, such as soil nutrients or access to water. This phenomenon creates a raised and more stable baseline against which there is less fluctuation in yield.

This study – published in the journal Ecology Letters – marks the start of Bees’ Needs Week (18-24 July), a UK government-led initiative championing pollinators and their multiple benefits by encouraging people to take five simple actions to support pollinators.  

Image Credit: Louise Truslove/University of Reading

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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