Nutrition-wise blog

Animal-pollinated crops essential to the food supply

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. August 10, 2011

A recent study has made me marvel at the simplicity and beauty of our ecosystem — and it's fragility.

The study evaluated the contribution of animal-pollinated crops on nutrients in the food supply. Researchers examined the nutrient availability in more than 150 animal-pollinated crops. The results were striking:

  • Most of the available vitamin C — a major antioxidant — comes from pollinated plants.
  • Nearly 75 percent of food oils come from plants that rely on pollination. These fats also serve as primary sources of fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Pollinated crops provide between 70 and 98 percent of the plant substances that the body turns into vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness.
  • Pollinated plants also provide 58 percent of calcium and 62 percent of fluoride — minerals crucial for development of bone and teeth. Although calcium in dairy products is more bioavailable than that in plants, dairy farming is less environmentally efficient and more costly.
  • More than one-fourth of iron is derived from pollinator-dependent crops. Iron deficiency is thought to be the most common nutrient deficiency. Iron plays a role in prevention of infection and cognitive impairment. As with calcium, iron from animal sources is more costly and taxing to the environment.

Why is this important? Because pollinating animals, including bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and bats, are in decline. Reasons for the decline include winter kill, natural diseases unique to the species, and human-induced habitat loss, disruption of migratory routes and pesticide use.

The researchers estimated that up to 40 percent of key nutrients provided by crops could be lost without pollinators. This could have dramatic impact on global health.

It makes me more mindful and appreciative of the foods I choose. It also makes me more mindful of our precious environment. Thoughts?

- Jennifer

Aug. 10, 2011