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Daily News Blog

18
Jun

Industrial Agriculture Practices Contribute to the Insect Apocalypse

(Beyond Pesticides, June 18, 2019) As the New York Times wrote in November 2018, “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” But can we reverse it? Pollinator Week this year is overshadowed by a greater, all-encompassing crisis that spans the entire insect world. Scientists and researchers have identified three broad contributors to the crisis: pesticide use, habitat destruction, and climate change. It is evident that multi-national agrichemical industries, companies like Bayer Monsanto, DowDupont, Syngenta, and the umbrella organization Croplife, that pervade our food system share much of the blame. But through public pressure and consumer choice, we can shift towards alternative products and practices, improve biodiversity, and begin to repair the damage done by industrial agriculture.

Pesticide Use

Industrial agricultural often places pesticide use as the first tool in the toolbox of possible fixes to pest problems. This leads to a range of deleterious impacts both up and down the food chain, as both prey and predator succumb to the effects of broad spectrum pesticides. Although it makes common sense that pesticides kill off more than their target insect, the scale of the problem was not realized until a study was published in PLOS One by German researchers. It found, after 27 years of trapping flying insects, that overall biomass declined by 75% within the time frame of their study. Researchers identified agricultural intensification and pesticide use as a plausible cause of the results. As renown UK ecologist and study coauthor David Goulson, PhD, said at the time, “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”

In a systematic review of insect declines made by researchers Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, PhD and Kris A.G. Wyckhuys, PhD, pesticide use was identified as a critical component of addressing the crisis at large. “A rethinking of current agricultural practices, in particular a serious reduction in pesticide usage and its substitution with more sustainable, ecologically-based practices, is urgently needed to slow or reverse current trends, allow the recovery of declining insect populations and safeguard the vital ecosystem services they provide,” they write.

Habitat Destruction

Clearing land for agriculture is ultimately a necessary undertaking in order to feed human populations. But most impactful is the rate of habitat elimination, and the use of the land cleared for farming. In many countries, including the US, tax incentives and priority has been given to the production of row crops such as corn and soy. But many of these crops don’t make it onto consumer’s plates, and are used as cattle feed, or in the production of biofuels.

The most salient and recognizable impact of industrial agriculture’s influence on habitat destruction has been with butterflies and moths. In the U.S., both western and eastern monarchs are in catastrophic declines. In the 1980s, over 10 million western monarchs overwintered in California. In the late 1990s, that number had shrunk to 1.2 million. This past winter recorded only 200,000 monarchs at breeding sites. Eastern monarchs have also seen their numbers vanish – from nearly one billion in the late 1990s, to only 93 million today.

These impacts can be traced to the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) cropping systems, the most extreme version of chemically-dependent, industrial agriculture. These crops have been developed either to produce their own insecticide, or withstand continuous spraying of highly toxic herbicides. In the case of monarchs, repeated, broad-scale herbicide applications have led to the loss of milkweed plants the butterflies require to lay their eggs.

Climate Change

In a study conducted in Puerto Rico, researchers found 90% declines of ground dwelling insects over a period of 35 years. The authors attribute these impacts to rapidly increasing temperatures on the island. “The number of hot spells, temperatures above 29C, have increased tremendously,” study co-author Bradford Lister, PhD told the Guardian. “It went from zero in the 1970s up to something like 44% of the days.”

Intensive farming practices are significant contributors to man-made climate change. Within the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10% of emissions are a result of agriculture. While gross production of CO2 is relatively low at 1%, the rest of the discharge comes in the form of crop and livestock emissions of methane and nitrous oxides from synthetic fertilizers. These chemicals are greenhouse gases with heat-trapping power hundreds of times more potent than CO2.

Averting the Apocalypse

The response to industrial agriculture must take into account the possibility for food production to result in these wide-ranging adverse impacts. But in each area, organic agriculture provides an answer to the industrial model. Not all organic farms are perfect, and weakening of organic regulations has the potential to permit more farms to operate a monoculture, industrial model, so advocates and consumers must remain vigilant in defense of organic principles.

But when organic principles are put into practice, soil sequesters carbon, land use fosters insect biodiversity, and pesticides are rarely employed. Some argue that organic is also a contributor to climate change. But studies show that organic farms sequester 13% more CO2 than conventional farms. A white paper published by the Rodale Institute in 2014,  Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming, argues that it is possible to sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions by switching to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which are referred to in the paper as “regenerative organic agriculture.”

Organic detractors will also claim that organic farms require more land than conventional farms. But by reshaping lands currently under mono-crop production into diverse organic cropping systems, we can improve these agricultural areas so that they foster, rather than destroy, biodiverse insect populations.  Research finds that while conventional farms are often devoid of pest predators, organic farms can maintain their numbers.

Many will also claim that pesticides compatible with organic systems are just as or more dangerous as those used in conventional farming. This is simply untrue. In fact, the review process for allowed materials is much more rigorous in its protection of human health and biodiversity, resulting in the only real option we have to preserve life on this planet. Pesticides in organic must be evaluated for their impacts to health and the environment, essentiality, and compatibility with an organic system. With any pesticide in organic, its use is not allowed without an “organic systems plan” that, through soil management, the planting of buffer zones, cover crops, and trap crops, can avoid or even the use of the least-toxic pesticides approved under organic certification.

This Pollinator Week, help raise awareness of the role industrial agrichemical companies play in the promotion of industrial agricultural practices. By advocating for safer practices to grow food we eat, and purchasing organic whenever possible, we can stop making food production and insect abundance a zero-sum situation. For more actions you can take to honor pollinators and the insect world this Pollinator Week, see previous Daily News stories and the Bee Protective webpage.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

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