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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Bat Die-off Causing Costly Food Supply Losses

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 28, 2011

It hadn’t occurred to me that the dramatic decline in U.S. bat populations could affect our food supply.  But an article published in Science earlier this year says bats provide farmers with $3.7 billion worth of services every year, mostly by eating various crop pests.  I guess I missed the original story because I was traveling in Namibia at the time.  But it came to my attention through a new press release:

SANTA MONICA, Calif., May 24, 2011 /PRNewswire/ — Crisis in the bat world could mean trouble for the U.S. food supply, according to an article in the April issue of Food Nutrition & Science.  A recent report from the U.S Geological Survey (USGS), the University of Pretoria, the University of Tennessee and Boston University details how bats in North America likely provide farmers more than $3.7 billion worth of pest-control services each year but the loss of bat populations from infectious disease and wind turbines could lead to agricultural losses.

“Bats provide free and silent pest-control services as they eat flying insects, such as moths and beetles, which reproduce quickly and prey on our crops,” says Phil Lempert, founder of Food Nutrition & Science and CEO of The Lempert Report and SupermarketGuru.com.  “Unfortunately, bats are currently facing two very dangerous enemies, a disease called White Nose Syndrome and wind turbines, and we need to figure out how bats can co-exist with the latter so we don’t increase pesticide use on our crops.”

To date, over one million bats are thought to have died from White Nose Syndrome, a condition that awakes bats early from hibernation before there is enough available food. In addition, scientists have estimated that by 2020, 33,000 to 111,000 bats could be killed annually by wind turbines in the Mid-Atlantic Highlands alone. While wind turbines provide a great source of green energy, they are not kind to certain species of migratory, tree-roosting bats.

Curiously, Food Nutrition & Science seems to be sponsored by Monsanto, the agribusiness giant.  I am not sure what their angle is here (but have a hunch they will find one).   The article is largely a re-write of a press release issued by USGS in March, which included this additional information:

The value of the pest-control services to agriculture provided by bats in the U.S. alone range from a low of $3.7 billion to a high of $53 billion a year, estimated the study’s authors, scientists from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), USGS, University of Tennessee and Boston University.  They also warned that noticeable economic losses to North American agriculture could occur in the next 4 to 5 years as a result of emerging threats to bat populations.

The authors J.G. Boyles, P. Cryan, G. McCracken and T. Kunz published their article, “Economic importance of bats in agriculture,” appears in the April 1 edition of Science.

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