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Sustainable Ag

The Vital Role Of Pollinators in Agriculture

You may have seen actress, director, and humanitarian, Angelina Jolie, covered in bees in a bold and powerful portrait for National Geographic just a few short weeks ago. Jolie, a new UNESCO godmother of the group Women for Bees is determined to bring awareness to the declining bee populations and a new UNESCO 5-year program that will train women to protect bees.

Why the push to generate buzz? The fact is, bees and other pollinators are vital to our life and environment. And this goes for farming and agriculture as well.

Let's dive right into it.

Farming Wouldn't Be Possible Without Pollinators

Although small, pollinators are responsible for the growth and vitality of whole ecosystems and the foundation of entire food webs. The human food system would look dramatically different without the ecosystem services pollinators have been providing for millions of years. Pollinators of many different varieties play a critical role in the agriculture industry. From bees to bats, we depend on a diverse array of pollinators for food security, nutrition, and the rural economies producing our food.

Farmland investing relies on the work pollinators do behind the scenes. Most of the permanent crops FarmTogether offers for farmland investments require insects and small animals for successful crop yields and sustainable returns. In recent decades, pollinator numbers have taken a downturn as a result of habitat loss, climate change, and exposure to chemicals. The recent surge in interest in regenerative farming practices could ultimately support pollinator habitat restoration, and has the potential to begin reversing the decline in pollinator numbers. Regenerative farming practices offer a safe harbor for the small animals and insects that are responsible for three out of four fruit and nut producing crops across the globe.

What Crops Need Pollinators?

After crops bloom, they must be pollinated in order to bear fruit. Pollination occurs through the action of either insects or small animals, which feed on the nectar in the flowers and transfer pollen among the plants they visit, or through the action of the wind dispersing pollen between plants. Common grain crops like wheat, rice, barley, and oats are examples of plants that utilize the wind for pollination. Most permanent crops, on the other hand, cannot depend on wind for successful fertilization. Most varieties of permanent crops like almonds, apples, hazelnuts, and pistachios all need pollinators to grow a successful harvest. Pollinators are the highest contributors to crop yields worldwide. According to the Penn State Center for pollinator research, honeybees and wild bees alone contribute more than $20 billion to the U.S. agriculture industry each year based on the total value of the crops they pollinate.

Types of Pollinators

Bees are the most famous of the pollinators but there are many that get far less publicity for their crucial work. Moths, flies, wasps, beetles, and butterflies are all on the list of critters we have to thank for successful crop yields. There are even many vertebrate pollinators including bats and other mammals like some species of monkeys, rodents, lemurs, and tree squirrels. A handful of birds such as hummingbirds, sunbirds, and few parrot species are on the list as well.

Each of these pollinator species contribute to their own unique niche in the food web and rely on different plants for survival, making it crucial that we support pollinators by growing a diverse array of plant species to accommodate pollinator needs. The abundance and diversity of pollinators ensure the resiliency of plant communities. Strong plant and pollinator communities lead to better food security and nutrition.

Pollinators affect 35 percent of agricultural production globally and are necessary for the successful harvest yields of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide. Crops like fruits and nuts that depend on pollinators are five times more valuable than crops like grains that do not need pollinators. The value of crops that require pollinators is estimated to be between $235 and $577 billion annually. The demand for healthy snack foods like fruits and nuts that come from food production systems reliant on pollinators is on the rise and the volume of crop production dependent on these wild insects and animals has increased by 300 percent in the last 50 years.

Current State of Pollinators

In the last several decades, many pollinators have experienced significant population declines. In particular, wild and domestic bee populations and species count have seen a severe decline. Bee numbers have suffered for a variety of reasons including pesticide use, climate change, disease, and habitat loss. According to the USDA, the total number of managed honeybee colonies dropped from 5 million in the 1940s to only 2.66 million today.

Managed honeybee colonies are responsible for adding at least $15 billion to the value of U.S. agriculture annually through increased yields and successful harvests. Honeybee numbers from managed colonies are suffering from a variety of different stressors like drought, disease and habitat loss, resulting in beekeepers losing many colonies. Some permanent crops, like almonds for example, rely entirely on honeybees for pollination. The almond industry in California utilizes nearly three-quarters of all managed honeybee colonies in the United States. Colonies are brought from all over the country during the short almond bloom from January to February each year.

Pollinators and Regenerative Agriculture

The recent decline in pollinator numbers has led to extensive research and development of mechanical pollination solutions like pollinator drones. While these new developments in Ag technology have promise, the cost of producing and using new methods of pollination are cost prohibitive. The cost barriers to engineered solutions for the loss in pollinator numbers has sparked renewed interest in farming practices, known as regenerative farming, that nurture wild pollinators.

Regenerative farming has the potential to build resilient farm systems by restoring biodiversity to the landscape. Adding biodiversity to our food production system provides habitat for the many different species of pollinators that all contribute to their niche in the food web. Regenerative agriculture helps ensure we will have natural pollination services for many different types of plants, providing long term food security and economic stability in our farming systems. Restoring biodiversity to the landscape helps the 20,000 bee species have the opportunity to complete their life cycles—not to mention the thousands of other pollinator species. Bee colonies rely on a diverse food supply to produce honey, support the queen, and reproduce. Bees must be able to return to the hive and produce honey free of synthetic chemicals commonly used in conventional farming practices. Regenerative farming leaves out the harmful chemicals that disrupt the bee life cycle and increases flowering plant diversity.

Organic farming prohibits the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides which are a main cause of bee number and species loss. This offers bees and other pollinators safe havens from the stressors they experience elsewhere. Regenerative farming practices can go even further by providing underlying support to biodiversity in the farming landscape, giving bees and other pollinators an additional edge in keeping their populations healthy.

Pollination Is Crucial To Life on Earth

Pollination is crucial to life on earth as we know it. Every year, we owe many of our crop harvests to the insects and small animals that carry pollen from one plant to the next. Honeybees are responsible for one out of every three mouthfuls of food in the American diet yet the majority of farming practices in the US are contributing to the loss in pollinator populations and species. FarmTogether offers a variety of farmland investing opportunities that not only add valuable returns to your investment portfolio but also support farming practices that grow habitat for pollinators.

You can find more information here about farmland investing on pollinator friendly cropland with FarmTogether.

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Disclaimer: FarmTogether is not a registered broker-dealer, investment adviser or investment manager. FarmTogether does not provide tax, legal or investment advice. This material has been prepared for informational and educational purposes only. You should consult your own tax, legal and investment advisors before engaging in any transaction.


Sara Spaventa
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