Pollution Versus Pollination: Losing Our Natural Resources from A to Zinc

Pollution Versus Pollination: Losing Our Natural Resources from A to Zinc

Two new studies from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are highlighting the decreasing numbers of food pollinators (bees and other insects) and the increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The study about pollinators currently appears in The Lancet, while the study about zinc appears in Lancet Global Health. Both studies have been published as a part of the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health report, Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch. Dr. Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet and one of the report authors, said that the Commission “aims to put the health of human civilizations, and their special relationship with the larger biosphere, at the center of concerns for future planetary sustainability. Our civilization may seem strong and resilient, but history tells us that our societies are fragile and vulnerable. We hope to show how we can protect and strengthen all that we hold dear about our world.”

In the study of pollinators, a group of scientists and researchers looked at humans’ dietary intake data for 224 types of food in 156 countries to quantify total per capita intake of vitamin A, folate, fruits, vegetables, and nuts and seeds under various pollinator decline scenarios. They then estimated the potential health impacts of declines in pollinators—mostly bees and other insects. Pollinators take part in about 35% of global food production and are responsible for up to 40% of the world’s supply of important micronutrients, such as vitamin A and folate which are crucial for both children and pregnant women. Insufficient or nonexistent intake of key foods affected by pollinator species increases the risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, esophageal and lung cancer. A complete loss of animal pollinators globally would thrust an additional 71 million people into vitamin A deficiency and 173 million more into folate deficiency, leading to about 1.42 million additional deaths per year from non-communicable diseases and malnutrition-related diseases—a 2.7% increase in total yearly deaths. Over the past decade, there have been significant declines in animal pollinators worldwide. Although the exact cause for these declines is still unclear, a “consensus is forming to attribute decreased insect pollination—the predominant type of animal pollination—to a combination of causes, including pest infestations, disease, increased use of pollinator-harming pesticides, and loss of habitat and forage.”

The second study found that increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide could lead to lower levels of zinc in food, greatly expanding zinc deficiency. Zinc is another key nutrient for the health of pregnant women and children; without enough, there is increased risk of premature delivery, reduced growth and weight gain in young children, as well as decreased immune function. Around 17% of the global population was estimated to be at risk of zinc deficiency in 2011. Because of previous research suggesting that elevated concentrations of atmospheric CO₂ lowers the content of zinc in important crops such as wheat, rice, barley, and soy, the authors estimated that growing CO2 emissions caused by human activity could place 138 to 187 million people at new risk of zinc deficiency by around 2050. Those most likely to be affected live in Africa and South Asia (48 million in India alone), populations that are already burdened with the world’s highest levels of zinc deficiency and reliant on crops for most of their dietary zinc.

Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, said that the Commission “has issued a dire warning: Human action is undermining the resilience of the earth’s natural systems, and in so doing we are compromising our own resilience, along with our health and, frankly, our future. We are in a symbiotic relationship with our planet, and we must start to value that in very real ways. Just as Foundation leaders 100 years ago took a holistic view and launched the field of public health, the Commission’s report marks a paradigm shift for a new era of global public health, one that must be integrated with broader policy decisions.”

About the Author

Julia Troute is a freelance associate content editor.