Biodiversity, plant-pollinator interactions, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

In the past couple of weeks I’ve delivered two presentations at virtual conferences. The first was at a Global Sustainability Summit run by Amity University, one of our partner institutions in India. The second was at the University of Northampton’s own internal research conference. Both of these focused on pollinators, as you might imagine, but they also referred to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 SDGs are being increasingly used as a framework for promoting the importance of biodiversity to human societies across the globe, and I’m seeing them referred to more and more often in studies and reports about pollinator conservation. That’s great, and I’m all in favour of the SDGs being promoted in this way. However I wanted to highlight a couple of aspects of the SDGs that I think are missing from recent discussions.

The first is that pollinators, and their interactions with plants, are often seen as contributing mainly to those SDGs that are directly related to agriculture and biodiversity. Here’s an example. Last week the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy released a “Future Brief” report entitled: “Pollinators: importance for nature and human well-being, drivers of decline and the need for monitoring“. It’s a really interesting summary of current threats to pollinator populations, how we can monitor them, and why it’s important. I recommend you follow that link and take a look. However, in the section about relevant, global-level policies, the report highlights “the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – especially regarding food security (‘zero hunger’) and biodiversity (‘life on land’).

I think this is under-selling pollinators and pollination, and here’s why. First of all, as we pointed out in our 2011 paper “How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?”, approaching 90% of terrestrial plants use insects and vertebrates as agents of their reproduction and hence their long-term survival. As we showed in that paper, and a follow up entitled “The macroecology of animal versus wind pollination: ecological factors are more important than historical climate stability“, the proportion of animal-pollinated plants in a community varies predictably with latitude, typically from 40 to 50 % in temperate areas up to 90 to 100% in tropical habitats. Now, flowering plants dominate most terrestrial habitats and form the basis of most terrestrial food chains. So the long-term viability and sustainability of much the Earth’s biodiversity can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to pollinators. That’s even true of coastal marine biomes, which receive a significant input of energy and nutrients from terrestrial habitats.

Biodiversity itself underpins, or directly or indirectly links to, most of the 17 SDGS; those that don’t have an obvious link have been faded out in this graphic:

The underpinning role of biodiversity, and in particular plant-pollinator interactions, on the SDGs needs to be stated more often and with greater emphasis than it is currently.

The second way in which I think that some writers and researchers in this area have misconstrued the SDGs is that they seem to think that it only applies to “developing” countries. But that’s certainly not the way that the UN intended them. ALL countries, everywhere, are (or should be) “developing” and trying to become more sustainable. To quote the UN’s SDG website:

“the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)….are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.”


“the SDGs are a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the environment.”

I interpret this as meaning that “developed” countries need to consider their own future development, not that they only have to give a helping hand to “developing” countries (though that’s important too). Just to drive this home, here’s a recent case study by Elizabeth Nicholls, Dave Goulson and others that uses Brighton and Hove to show how small-scale urban food production can contribute to the SDGs. I like this because it goes beyond just considering the agricultural and food-related SDGs, and also because by any measure, Brighton and Hove is a fairly affluent part of England.

I’m going to be talking about all of this and discussing it with the audience during an online Cafe Scientifique on Thursday 25th June – details are here. I’m also going to be exploring more of these ideas in my forthcoming book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, which is due for publication later this year. The manuscript is submitted and is about to be copy-edited. The PowerPoint slide which heads this post uses a graphic from that book that sums up how I feel about biodiversity, plant-pollinator interactions, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

14 thoughts on “Biodiversity, plant-pollinator interactions, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

  1. Beth Nicholls

    As a regular reader, this was a really nice surprise this afternoon Jeff 🙂 Thanks for featuring our paper! We were supposed to have a comparison with a developing country too but frustratingly the money wasn’t transferred between institutions in time for the fieldwork to happen concurrently, but our partners at Calcutta university have been working on it since. I learnt a lot from their extensive experience in engaging with farmers. More to come from this project and yes…I should be writing!

  2. ibartomeus

    Hi Jeff, I agree that the crop-pollinator interactions tends to monopolize the conversation, but bees provide much more, what about other Ecosystem Services such as soil aeration (60% of bees are ground-nesting, with nests averaging 35 cm depth) or the fact that bees are at the base of a complex food web involving birds, spiders, mites, and a plethora of insects that predate, parasite or scavenge on bees and bee nests, just to focus on two ecological roles they play beyond pollination.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Yes, I completely agree. The same is true of hoverflies and wasps which can be predatory on pests, and butterflies which provide cultural ecosystem services.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Ah, excellent, thanks Gerardo, I hadn’t seen that. I wish they’d focused on pollinators more broadly rather than just bees, but nonetheless this is a great start and reinforces what I was saying with some real examples in Table 1.

  3. Jim Devries

    Jeff, a very interesting perspective and I fully agree. We are attempting to introduce a diversity of floral resources into standard forage crop mixtures in prairie Canada – which typically only include alfalfa currently. If the vast acreage of seeded pasture and hayland in prairie Canada provided more resources for pollinators throughout the growing season, we think this may give pollinators a boost in rural landscapes.

  4. cactusneedle

    Nicely written article. I sincerely hope pesticides and herbicides use will go down globally.

    “the proportion of animal-pollinated plants in a community varies predictably with latitude, typically from 40 to 50 % in temperate areas up to 90 to 100% in tropical habitats”

    As a natural farmer in the tropics this is really interesting to know.
    After reforesting a degraded sugar cane plantation that was previously sprayed with chemicals I have seen an exponential increase in insect and plant biodiversity trough the practice of natural farming (no plowing, zero fertilizers, zero pesticides, zero herbicides).

  5. Pingback: Proteção dos polinizadores e sustentabilidade: objetivos que se cruzam – Darwinianas

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