Societal and Security Implications of Ecosystem Service Declines, Part 1: Pollination and Seed Dispersal

Washington DC, March 22, 2022 – Today, the Converging Risks Lab of the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) released a groundbreaking report, Societal and Security Implications of Ecosystem Service Declines, Part 1: Pollination and Seed Dispersal. It is the first in a planned three-part series on the international security implications of declines in ecosystem services – the suite of ecological functions that provide benefits to humans. This first report examines the significant risks to people, nations, and the international system likely to arise from significant declines in bees and other animals that pollinate flowering plants, and from declines in mammals and birds that disperse seeds.

Adverse effects on global and local food security, health, economic livelihoods, and political and social stability are expected to accompany such declines, especially for those nations whose crops are particularly dependent on pollination. While Côte d’Ivoire, New Zealand, Samoa, and New Caledonia are identified as countries most vulnerable to pollinator declines, the report also argues that the interdependence of global food markets virtually guarantees that negative impacts would not be constrained to any nation’s borders.

Dr. Rod Schoonover, author of the report, Head of CSR’s Ecological Security Program, and former Director of Environment and Natural Resources at the National Intelligence Council, noted: “A conventional wisdom has emerged over the last decade that pollinator declines would only modestly depress total global food production since only ten percent of the world’s most important crops depend on pollination. In this report, however, we show that not only is any depression in food production worrying, but traditional methods of understanding risks also obscure the deep dependencies some nations have on pollinators for their food and economic security and livelihoods.”

The report also shows that pollinators play a critical role in nutrition, health, and lifestyles by enabling the production of a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and stimulants, such as coffee, and that strains in these sectors can have significant security implications of their own. “Food security cannot be achieved solely through a diet consisting of crops that are wind-pollinated or artificially pollinated,” said Schoonover. “Without nutritional security, there is no food security, regardless of how many kilocalories are consumed, and this can contribute to social instability” he continued.

The report also assesses potential risks arising from what some scientists have called “evidence of a growing, global, seed dispersal crisis.”  Declines in seed dispersal—an understudied but crucially important ecological process—would impair the ability of trees and other plants to migrate to more favorable conditions under climate change or escape pests and pathogens. “The resulting forest degradation is likely to negatively affect people and nations directly, such as through shortfalls in food, shelter, and timber, and indirectly, from wide-ranging downstream effects on carbon sequestration, air quality, biodiversity, infectious disease mitigation, and other important forest ecosystem services.”.

Seed dispersal declines could even limit the ability of the international community to combat the climate crisis, and its attendant security risks. “Mammals, birds, and other animals are responsible for the seed dispersal in about 90 percent of tropical forests and 60 percent of temperate forests, and substantial decreases in their populations would have profound effects on these ecosystems,” explained Dr. Schoonover.  “As we argue in the report, which itself draws heavily from peer-reviewed scientific literature, seed dispersal declines are likely to limit the potential for nations to turn to forest restoration, especially in the tropics, as a nature-based solution to address climate change. This will make combating climate change even more difficult, and increase the likelihood of catastrophic security implications as well.”

Today’s release is the first in a series of three ecological security reports assessing the implications of declines in ecosystem services. Focusing on ecosystem functions rather than particular organisms or species, these science-informed reports examine the consequences to people and societies if the requisite “transformative changes across economic, social, political, and technological factors,” argued as necessary for sustainability by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, are slow or don’t transpire at all. 

“My sense is that the international community will struggle to seriously confront or offset ecological disruption, which was already going to be a heavy lift even before the rules-based international system began to weaken,” said Schoonover. “As biodiversity loss mounts and the fabric of the biosphere unravels, we should expect negative impacts on security through ecosystem service declines. The primary motivation for producing this series of reports was to better articulate for policymakers and the public what could transpire if we don’t identify and safeguard critical ecosystem services. National and international policies that are insensitive towards pollination and seed dispersal services are highly likely to contribute to instability across social, political, and economic domains.”

Direct inquiries to: Francesco Femia, ffemia at csrisks dot org

Read the full report: Here