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Insect Loss Stunting Fruit and Vegetable Production, Leading to More Than 400,000 Early Deaths a Year

The global decline of bees and other pollinators is stunting yields of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Scientists estimate that the loss of these nutritious foods is leading to 427,000 early deaths a year.

“This study shows that doing too little to help pollinators does not just harm nature, but human health as well,” Matthew Smith, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Rising temperatures, widespread use of pesticides, and habitat loss are fueling a downturn in the population of insects, with has dropped by nearly half in some parts of the world. Insects pollinate around three-fourths of crops, scientists said, and their decline has hurt the growth of key foods.

For the study, researchers gathered data from hundreds of experimental farms in Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America, finding that in 2020, growers produced 3 to 5 percent less fruits, vegetables, and nuts than they would have in a world with thriving insect populations. In lower-income countries, the impact was severe, with the loss of pollinators stunting agricultural incomes by an estimated 10 to 30 percent.

Researchers also modeled how the drop production is impacting public health, finding that declining consumption of fruits and vegetables is limiting the intake of needed nutrients and giving rise to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers. Globally, the loss of pollinators is leading to an additional 427,000 deaths yearly. The effect is most pronounced in middle-income countries, such as China and Russia. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

“Globally, we consume too much of the wind-pollinated crops — wheat, rice, corn, barley — which are rich in carbs but relatively low in nutrients, leading to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes around the world,” University of Sussex researcher David Goulson, who was not affiliated with the study, told The Guardian. “We do not eat enough fruit and veg, most of which requires insects for pollination.”

Goulson added, “The most concerning aspect of this study is that, since insect populations are continuing to decline, this lost crop yield is going to get worse into the future, while the human population is going to continue growing to at least 10 billion.”

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