Why We Need Pollinators in our Food System

Learn why we need pollinators in our food system in order to survive, as well as how you can support pollinator health with your diet choices.

As you enjoy a beautiful, healthy bounty of seasonal produce, you may not think about all of the magic that came together in order to get those delicious fruits and vegetables to your plate. There’s the healthy soil, nutrients, water, and sunshine that nourished those seeds and roots in order to flourish and bear fruit. Then, of course, there are the farm workers who toiled in the hot sun, enduring often back-breaking work to plant, tend, and harvest that food. But there’s another factor in food production people often don’t think about: pollinators. 

Honeybees in my garden in Ojai, California

What Are Pollinators?

As it turns out, those birds, bees, and butterflies circling farms have been doing more than making noise and looking pretty. These are examples of pollinators, who are responsible for pollinating plants by helping flowering plants with reproduction. Pollination happens when pollen grains from the male anther of a flower are transferred to the female stigma of a flower. This process can happen via self-pollination, with the assistance of abiotic agents, such as wind and water, or with the help of biotic agents.   

Butterflies love the basil flowers in my organic vegetable garden

Why Are Pollinators Important?

Pollinators play a very important role in our food system. Around 35% of our food crops depend on them for reproduction. Without them we wouldn’t have juicy apples, creamy avocados, or sweet strawberries, and that’s just to name a few! Pollinators help with pollination by carrying pollen from one flower to another flower’s reproductive parts when they are feeding on plants or visiting them. Then, the plants use the pollen deposited by the pollinators to produce fruit or seeds. They do a lot of work, and it shows, 75-95% of all flowering plants need pollinators for successful pollination. 

In my organic vegetable garden, where my pollinators thrive!

In addition to assisting with the growth of plants that produce edible fruits, flowers, vegetables, and nuts, pollinators also contribute to the entire ecosystem in various ways. They help with the growth of plants that produce raw materials like soybeans, canola, and cotton. They also help reduce carbon emissions by contributing to the growth of plants that store carbon dioxide, which results in carbon dioxide being locked into soil instead of polluting the air. 

Birds, like hummingbirds (in my jacaranda tree here), also pollinate flowering plants.

The Threat to Pollinators

Currently, scientists and organizations, such as the EPA, are concerned that pollinator health is declining due to multiple environmental stressors. If pollinators were to vanish completely, it is estimated that crop production in larger countries would decline by 5%, and by 8% in smaller countries. Without a doubt, their loss would be devastating to areas currently experiencing food insecurity.

Plant flowering plants year round, if possible, to sustain your pollinators.

Some of the current threat’s pollinators are facing include habitat loss and climate change. Habitat loss refers to a decline in living spaces for pollinators due to farming and commercial use of outdoor areas. Climate change describes shifts in temperature and weather. These shifts affect pollinators by changing growing seasons for plants that rely on them for nourishment. Additionally, shifts in temperature alter migration patterns for hummingbirds, white-winged doves, monarch butterflies, and pollinator bats. 

Fruit trees often require pollination by pollinators, like honeybees

Eating to Support Pollinators 

Because pollinators do more than pollinate, it’s important to protect them and practice actions that nurture pollinator health. There are steps we can take in our daily lives to support pollinator health, including changing our diets and practices when gardening. 

Eat Pollinator Friendly Foods

Pollinators, particularly honeybees, contribute to 1 out of every 3 bites of food we consume. That’s a lot! Pollinator reliant crops are foods that need pollinators for fertilization. Pollinated foods like avocados, Brazil nuts, and berries can support pollinator health by providing pollinators with food sources in the form of nectar and pollen. An increased demand for pollinated foods also helps stabilize our food supply and strengthen your local ecosystem.

Try Pollinator-Friendly Recipes

Here are a few examples of plant-based pollinator-friendly recipes. 

Cultivate a Pollinator-Friendly Garden 

When the habitat needs of pollinators are met, they make significant contributions to crop pollination. Pollinators need our help creating and maintaining habitats they can thrive in. As humans, gardeners, and consumers, we can take steps to protect pollinators and encourage pollinator health with a few practices. Growing pollinator-friendly plants, which provide nutrition support and natural ecosystems for pollinators, vary by region. Some common examples of pollinator-friendly plants include various species of milkweed, lavender, and sunflower. The Xerces Society offers pollinator-friendly plant lists for different regions across North America. Find your region and learn about what you can do to support your local pollinators.  

  1. Limit Pesticide Use
    Limiting the use of agricultural chemicals like insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides in your yard or garden is one of the simplest things you can do to support pollinator health. You can also choose certified organic foods, which restrict the use of most synthetic pesticides. Insecticides, like neonicotinoids, are harmful to bees, even in small quantities. Once absorbed into plants, neonicotinoids can have toxic affects on the pollen and nectar pollinators feed on. For honeybees, neonicotinoids can affect flight and navigation, memory, and hive productivity. Neonicotinoids are also known to cause reproductive dysfunction in bumble bees and solitary bees. 
  2. Implement Habitat Conservation Practices. Another way to help pollinators is by creating and maintaining community gardens with pollinator-friendly habitats. You can also practice pollinator-friendly land use practices. Pollinator-friendly land use practices are behaviors that benefit pollinators and the environment. Some examples include monitoring habitats for pollution and providing pollinators with shelter during adverse weather conditions.

There’s a lot you can do with your diet, lifestyle, and practices to help support your pollinators, who work so hard to help nourish us! 

Written by Cara Joseph, dietetic intern, with Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Photos by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN


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