Pollination: a wealth and health trade

By Athayde Tonhasca

For centuries, berries of the açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea) have been a staple food for the people in the Amazon, thanks to the fruits’ high caloric content. In the 1990s, açaí (ah-sah-ee), served as frozen pulp or juice, became a fashionable street food in Brazilian cities, a craze boosted by bogus claims about ‘antioxidant’ and ‘superfood’ properties. In no time the purplish berry left its swampy Amazonian plains to conquer the world: today açaí na tigela (açaí on a bowl) is available in restaurants and health food joints across Europe, America and Japan. 

Açaí berries and a traditional bowl of açaí with fruit and granola © CostaPPPR (L) and Gervásio Baptista, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Açaí generates an estimated US$ 1 billion/yr for the Brazilian economy, and the market is growing at a brisk pace. Most berries are harvested from palms growing in the wild, and everyone enjoying their benefits – subsistence farmers, traders, exotic food buffs and the taxman – must be grateful to the insects that pollinate the palm’s inflorescences, mostly stingless bees.

Stingless bees Trigona pallens, big contributors to the Brazilian economy © Nemésio, A. et al. 2013. Brazilian Journal of Biology 73: 677-678

The açaí berry is just one of several pollination-dependent products exported from Brazil and many other countries. When all the data is put together, it is estimated that more than 50% of the world’s exported crop products depend on pollinators.

Log-transformed tons of exported pollination-dependent Brazilian crops, 2001–2015 © Silva et al., 2021. Science Advances 7, eabe6636

Deforestation, fires and habitat degradation – which includes the spread of crop monocultures – threaten this global pollination-based trade, with heftier consequences for developing countries.  We may shrug our collective shoulders at what seems to be other people’s problems, but we must remember that a significant portion of the vitamins and minerals essential for our diet comes from insect-pollinated food, and most of it is imported. Many types of apples, pears, avocados, citrus fruits (e.g., orange, tangerine, limes, grapefruit) cucurbits (such as melon, courgette, cucumber, squash), peas and beans benefit from or are greatly dependent on insect pollinators, although some varieties are self-fertile and need none. Most vegetables consumed in the UK don’t require pollination for yield, but many of them may need pollinators for seed production; these include brassicas (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc.), carrot, fennel and parsley.

Pollination is important for our nutritional needs, and also for a few of our pleasures and indulgences. We may carry on through life without a bowl of açaí, but much less happily in the absence of coffee or cacao (hence chocolate), both of which need pollinators for adequate yield and high crop quality. House parties are more satisfying when stocked with bowls of almonds, Brazil nuts and cashews, none of which would be available without insect pollinators. If it wasn’t for bees, Worcestershire sauce wouldn’t be on the dinner table, at least not in its existing version. The condiment contains tamarind extract, and the tamarind tree needs bees for pollination. The list of examples can be quite long.

No nuts or Worcestershire sauce without pollinators © Melchoir (L) and Bardbom, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Brexit and the Covid pandemic have sharpened our attention to food security, so perhaps pollination, which is important to our diet, health, wellbeing and economy, will get a brighter spotlight. But just like climate change, threats to this ecological service are not confined by borders. Deforestation, pollution, wildfires and biodiversity losses may hurt far-flung places first, but their effects will cascade down to us. More than ever, we need to ‘think globally, act globally’.