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VOICES

John Gibbons Insects are in big trouble and that's bad news for birds and amphibians too

The environmental journalist and campaigner looks at the devastating losses to the global insect population and its ripple effects.

NOT SO LONG ago, a spell of glorious summer weather like this would have brought out countless millions of flying insects into the warm night skies.

If you left a window open with a light on, you’d likely return to find the room swarming with insects, while on a night-time drive you would have to use the wipers to clear off the dense ‘bug splat’ that festooned your windscreen. Not any more.

If all of the above sounds unfamiliar, even fanciful, chances are that you are under the age of 30-40 and you may be largely unaware of the truly shocking rate of change that has swept through the natural world in just the last few decades.

Disappearing

This was all brought back to me forcefully the other evening, on completing a 150km drive back to Dublin in the late evening. My route was a combination of national roads and motorway, and on parking up, I noticed that my windscreen was almost completely clear of insect splat marks.

And no, it’s not just my imagination. The term ‘Insectageddon’ has been coined to capture the epic ongoing global collapse of insect life. A major scientific review of insect population decline studies published in 2019 found that two in five insect species worldwide are declining.

According to the authors, “we are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods”.

It is estimated that the number of flying insects across Europe has declined by around 80%, triggering a collapse in the number of bird species that depend on insects.

European farmland birds are in sharp decline, with 57% disappearing largely as a result of a combination of mechanisation, pesticides and land clearance for intensive crop production. In Ireland, the situation is even more dire, with 63% of our bird species in decline and one in four seriously threatened, according to research carried out by Bird Life International.

Overall, around a quarter of the world’s insect population has disappeared since 1990. Declines in insect biomass are occurring at the rate of around 9% per decade, a situation without precedent in tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of years.

Tipping point

In his 2022 book titled ‘The Insect Crisis’, journalist Oliver Milman set out the grim scenario in stark terms: “our Pyrrhic victory at the very last gasp of Earth’s history means for the first time that a single species is the primary cause of an extinction episode to impact the only known life in the universe”.

Milman describes the insect kingdom as “the tiny empires that run the world”, and this is hardly an overstatement. Were insects to disappear, virtually all species of birds and amphibians would vanish in a year or less, and entire ecosystems would crumble.

The trillions of insects that occupy every ecological niche on Earth collectively outweigh all of humanity 17-fold, and are the critical components in every land-based ecosystem on the planet.

“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” wrote Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney in a scientific review that identified intensive agriculture as the main driver of insect decline, specifically the heavy use of pesticides, while urbanisation, climate change and light pollution are also implicated.

At over 400 million years old, the insect kingdom is truly ancient, pre-dating the rise and outlasting the demise of the dinosaurs, yet the severity and global nature of the crisis it now faces is without precedent in Earth’s history.

According to entomologist Josef Settele, the current agricultural system, with its heavy dependence on pesticides, is ultimately “putting the food security of the entire human race at risk.”

Political posturing

Efforts at EU level to ease the severe pressures on the natural world resulting from intensive agriculture have met a wall of organised resistance and lobbying from multinational chemical PLCs (global agri-chemical sales amount to over €230 billion a year) who stand to lose if the EU is successful in its goal of achieving a 50% cut in pesticide usage this decade.

The success of these interest groups in influencing many farmers’ organisations, as well as politicians to support their commercial agenda, has been one of the most disheartening aspects of the recent debate around the European Commission’s modest, measured Nature Restoration Law, with Irish Fine Gael MEPs leading the charge, broadly supported by Sinn Féin and some in Fianna Fáil.

As the recent recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss have shown clearly, the Irish public strongly support robust action to protect nature and restore biodiversity, but for politicians like Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, even these modest but essential measures “go too far”.

The insect kingdom represents the critical strands that hold the web of life together. “Insects are the food that make all the birds and make all the fish,” said Dr David Wagner of the University of Connecticut. “They’re the fabric tethering together every freshwater and terrestrial ecosystem across the planet.”

Three-quarters of the world’s food crops are pollinated by insects, a ‘free’ service to agriculture valued at more than $500 billion a year.

Some 80% of wild plants depend on insect pollination, so the consequences of rapid declines in insect populations cascade throughout the entire tree of life.

Intensive farming

Land use change, mostly the conversion of forests and wetlands for food production, had been the number one driver of insect decline. However, climate change is now adding to extinction pressures by disrupting habitats and drying out ecosystems.

Ironically, rising global temperatures have been a major boon to ‘pest’ species including mosquitos and pine bark beetles; the latter have wreaked havoc on temperate forests, having destroyed over a quarter of a million square kilometres of North American forests in the last two decades.

The form of agriculture least harmful to wildlife, including insects, is when organic systems are used.

Across the EU, on average around 9% of land is farmed organically. This area has grown rapidly, increasing by 41% in just the last five years as awareness of the biodiversity crisis has spread.

Ireland, however, is the second worst in the EU27 for organic farming, with barely 2% of our land farmed without chemicals. This low uptake may well reflect the resistance in some quarters in Ireland to the reality of the climate and biodiversity emergency, and the influence of populist politicians who stoke urban-rural tensions for electoral advantage by using inflammatory rhetoric to ridicule even the bare-minimum actions to protect nature.

In one of the most surreal moments in Dáil Eireann in recent years, deputy Michael Collins demanded an apology from junior minister, Pippa Hackett for describing him as an “organic farmer”, even though Collins had previously described himself as “proud to be organic”.

It is strange to consider that, in some quarters, ‘nature’ is almost a dirty word, yet without healthy, functioning ecosystems, there is no future for farming or, come to think of it, for any of us.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator.

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