Preventing Insect Armageddon
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Ceylon Today Features
You probably have heard that the environment is taking a lot of damage, with massive amounts of species dying in a matter of years. Among all the classes of the animal kingdom, it has been revealed that the insects have been taking the hardest hits. The massive decline of insect populations has gotten bad enough that environmentalists have been warning of an imminent ‘insect armageddon’, with the possibility of many insect species we know going extinct within this century. Among these many issues, there is still reason to have hope. A grassroots-level campaign from a region in Germany has quickly grown to becoming a national influence powerful enough to cause a massive shift in the country’s policy-making for the future. A testimony that change is still possible.
Scientists predict insect armageddon
The story begins when a study regarding insect populations reported its finding in 2017. In the report, it was pointed out that the biomass of insect populations within nature preserves had declined by 75 per cent in 27 years.
The biomass of a species is defined as the total weight of insects. Of course, scientists didn’t catch every single insect and then measure their weight in order to create this statistic. However, it’s a great system in order to keep track whether insect populations are thriving or not.
Of course, the gravity of the situation is realised only when we put some context into the situation. If the human population existing in the world today dropped by 75 per cent, you would have a surviving number of under 2 billion people (compared to the estimated 7.8 billion people that are living today). It’s a massive drop in populations worthy of being deemed apocalyptic.
Not an isolated issue
While it’s easy to say that, this is an issue faced in Germany and Germany alone, nothing can be further from the truth. The impact of a decimated insect population is already being felt throughout Europe.
In fact, the drastic decline in insect populations has been noticed globally. Scientists have warned that the world’s insect populations are already on the path to mass extinction. In an article from The Guardian that reported on a global study of insect populations, it was reported that more than 40 per cent of insect species are declining in number, with a third of them being endangered. “The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles,” they reported. All which could lead to a ‘catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.’
Small, but essential
This is mainly because ecosystems around the world rely on insect life, with the little ‘creepy crawlies’ essential for pollination, recycling nutrients and functioning as a food source for many animals. Without insects working behind the scenes, most of life as we know it would collapse. Birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians (who mostly rely on insects as food) would die of starvation, throwing the food chain out of balance. Many plants would not bear fruit, severely affecting agriculture, meaning we would have to face a food crisis, because farmers would have no choice but to pollinate their crops manually (a fate that is already being faced by Chinese apple and pear farmers today).
Life as we know it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the insects we don’t give enough credit towards. In order to prevent an ‘insect armageddon’, the reason behind the massive decline of insect populations must be found and corrected.
The global analysis, which was published in the journal ‘Biological Conservation’ points the finger towards agriculture as the main culprit.
Yes, it is the industrial farmers and the use of pesticides that are mostly to blame, even though it is the farmers themselves who would be the most impacted because of the decline in insects.
When looking for a good example on how extensive pesticide use affects insects in farmland, a perfect example is found in the almond orchards spread across Central Valley in California, home to 80 per cent of the world’s supply of Almonds.
Most almond trees need cross-pollination in order to produce nuts. Because pollination by wind does not happen easily, farmers have had to rely on pollinators such as bees to do the ‘heavy lifting’.
Because there aren’t enough pollinators to cover the vast orchards of almond trees, more than 70 per cent of the whole country’s commercial bee-keepers ship their hives to this area in order to pollinate almond orchards which cover over a million acres in the region at a hire. While this may be beneficial to the beekeepers, the bees suffer a major toll each year.
The domesticated honey bees used by bee-keepers are considered to be livestock in the US Department of Agriculture. However, it has been reported that more bees die each year in the US than all other animals raised for slaughter combined. For example, it has been estimated that up to 50 billion honeybees would have been wiped out the winter of 2018-2019 alone (not even half a year). While there are a few other contributors, the main villain has been discovered to be the insane amounts of pesticide and chemicals used on almond trees each year.
Back in Germany, agriculture is a massively-important industry for the country, with almost half the country’s landmass being used for agriculture. A vast majority of these farmlands extensively use chemical based fertilisers and pesticides. However, this has been at the cost of much of the country’s insect life.
A recent article from ‘National Geographic’ reported vast fields of industrial farms devoted to a single crop are sometimes being called ‘green deserts’. Some conservation biologists point out that there are places in deserts that have larger numbers of insects and animal life when compared to the crop-fields.
Campaigning for change
Media and activists had taken notice of the warnings made by scientists and spread awareness, which led to a petition being formed in the German state of Bavaria, aimed at reforming laws towards more environmentally friendly farming practices within the region. The new laws would bring in drastic changes, much of which the region’s farming community (which had a lot of political power) would not take a liking to because of the restrictions that would be put on them.
However, the petition quickly grew in the number of supporters, till it became a massive public movement, garnering 1.75 million signatures from the public; a force large enough that the attention of the local government could not ignore, amidst the pressure from the Bavarian Farmers Association who lobbied against it. Government support became strong enough that not only were the proposed reforms made into law, but strengthened with additional laws as well aimed at promoting organic farming, protecting water from being contaminated due to farming activities and a government-organised insect protection programme, which aimed to increase habitats, reduce pesticide use and control light pollution which interferes with insect behaviour. As an additional initiative, wild plants growing on the roadside are left to grow wild. Which provides both insects and birds places to feed and shelter.
A spot of good news
Germany isn’t the only country that has become more concerned about their wildlife and insect diversity. The European Union itself and its nations have been taking a range of interesting initiatives to protect insect populations, which have been suffering greatly throughout the entire region. Because this new ‘bug-friendly’ movement has only just begun, so it’s too early to see visible changes, it seems that with these changes, there is hope that the measures taken are enough to prevent an insect armageddon.
Lessons to learn
The threat of ‘insect armageddon’ lies not only in Europe and America, but also within the farmlands of Sri Lanka, where the use of pesticides has increasingly become a menace to the environment and the health of the communities who drink the water that are being contaminated as a result of it. Will Sri Lanka be able to protect its diverse insect life before it is too late?