Plant pollination yields seeds, the key to agriculture

Pollination is necessary for the sexual reproduction of flowering plants. Sexual reproduction provides a means of mixing the genetic material of individuals so that the next generation has variability—or slight variations—in its genetic makeup. These slight differences are what allow living things to adapt to changes in their environment over time.

Plants can reproduce by asexual means, but the new individuals have no variability—they are identical to the parent plant. There are times when this is a good thing for humans. For example, if we like a particular bush and we want another just like it, we can take cuttings from the first bush and grow another. Pollination has no part in this process.

If we want seeds, however, we must have pollination. And seeds are the key to agriculture. Nuts are the seeds of trees. Corn is the seed of maize. Beans are the seeds of legumes. Sometimes the seed is forgotten because we emphasize the protective material more than the seed itself. The crunchy apple, the creamy avocado, and the sweet berries we eat are just protective material wrapped around seeds. If there was no pollination, there would be no seeds to cover, so there would be no crop to eat.

Agriculture has gotten more complicated over the years. Many of our crops are hybrids that may be sterile, and we have manipulated certain crops to produce fruit without seeds. But these are man-made creations that cannot survive without human intervention. If you think of pollination as being necessary to produce seeds—and seeds as being necessary to produce the next generation—you basically understand the system.

If we don’t eat the seeds directly, it is easy to forget how important they are. Take carrots for example. We don’t eat the seed, we eat the root. The same goes for beets and radishes and turnips. But somewhere out there people are growing these crops for their seeds so that we have something to plant the next year. The same is true for the crops grown to feed livestock. Although one farmer may be growing alfalfa to feed his dairy cows, another farmer is growing alfalfa just for the seeds. If he didn’t, what would the dairy farmer plant next year?

All this seed growing requires pollination. Some species of plants pollinate themselves. Some are pollinated by the wind, by flowing water, or by birds and bats. But most species are pollinated by insects.

People argue that you can feed the world with non-insect pollinated plants. This is probably true, as long as you eat nothing but grain: corn, rice, wheat, millet, barley, oats, etc. But would it be a healthy world? Definitely not. Our need for a varied diet of fruits and vegetables could never be met with non-insect pollinated plants.

Pollinators are not easily replaced. They have evolved along with the plants they pollinate for millions of years. Although we have no replacements ready to take their place, we insist on destroying untold billions of them every day. And we believe we are intelligent.


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