Insect Apocalypse: Industrial Entomocide

Humans have become very effective at killing pests. But we are also, unwittingly perhaps, paying a huge and growing price for the unintended consequences of this technology.

In the UK, experts are pointing the finger at widespread and routine use of factory-made pesticides for causing declines in non-target insect numbers and impacts for other wildlife not to mention concerns over pesticide resistance and impacts on human health. Here I will set out how the pesticides used in agriculture are causing problems for wildlife and for us all.

Pesticides are a global mega-industry which has boomed over the last 50-60 years. They have helped to ensure less food is lost to pests and therefore use of land is more efficient at growing crops. They also help ensure weeds are suppressed, produce lasts longer and customers are happy with a consistent bug-free product. Of course there is strong a business case for the farming community to reduce pesticides and save costs, but around 17,000 tonnes are applied to a growing area of the UK each year – 80,000 hectares at the last count - and this is a staggering success story of farming technology. But there are downsides.

Unintended consequence #1 the actual pest.

In order to supress the insect pests of crops, powerful chemicals sometimes need to be sprayed several times during the life of the crop. In 2015 each hectare of arable land had, on average, 17.4 applications of pesticides applied to it, forming a lethal cocktail. This is often done routinely whether there is actually a pest problem or not. Like the ticking-timebomb of human antibiotic resistance though, this practice can lead to resistance in the pest itself where the formulation simply stops working and a new one must be used.

Narrow headed ant John Walters

Unintended consequence #2 non-target species.

Crop sprays can drift into hedgerows, field-edges and even nature reserves, potentially killing everything from rare butterflies to pollinating bumblebees and even the natural predators of crop pests. This has been known for a long time and scientists have demonstrated the benefits of unsprayed field edges in reducing the impacts on non-target species. The results can be dramatic not just for insects but also for bird life. Unsprayed banks and field edges have been shown to act as a safe haven and foraging route into the crop for pollinators and beneficial insects such as ground beetles, parasitic wasps and hoverflies, all of which supress crop pests naturally.

Unintended consequence #3 soil health.

Pesticides wash into the soil where they will also kill the billions of tiny insects and invertebrates which help provide fertile soil by converting organic matter (crop stubbles, manure etc.) into slow-release minerals which are available to the crop once again with less need to spray with synthetic fertilisers. So knocking-out soil fauna impacts crops which means we need to spray even more and risk polluting watercourses and drinking water.

Golden ringed dragonfly, Fergus Gill

Unintended consequence #4 Human health

Concerns over pesticide residues in our food are growing and are one of the main reasons in shoppers’ minds for choosing organic produce. It is often hard to clearly demonstrate that pesticides in food are leading to illnesses, but it is equally hard to say they are not. With increases in certain illnesses, many people are joining the dots and simply don’t trust these chemicals which are designed to be toxic and deadly to life. Some pesticides and fertilisers end up in drinking water too, and there are areas where this is a problem and use of chemicals needs to be actively curbed at a catchment scale. But what about the impacts on our mental health?  If there are no insects there are fewer birds, and we derive pleasure from hearing birdsong and seeing bumblebees and butterflies, we are poorer in spirit.

There is another way! Organic agriculture does provide solutions to many of these issues because it eliminates the use of synthetic pesticides being used on crops, instead using more natural methods of pest control or clever delivery systems that don’t affect non-target species or lead to residues in the crop or pollution of the wider environment. Even conventional agriculture has improved targeting through technology, also embracing approaches such as Integrated Pest Management whereby simply rotating crops, boosting numbers of beneficial insects by providing habitats in the farm ecosystem, helps keep insect pests below a harmful threshold.

With so much of Hampshire and the Island under arable cultivation pesticides are a live issue for our local wildlife, and one we must help work towards a solution for. Through advice to farmers we can help ensure the most sensitive parts of the landscape are not impacted by pesticides. Through acquiring land adjacent to our nature reserves we can buffer them from the impacts of pesticides. And by making informed choices as a consumer, we can all do our bit to ensure that pesticides are kept in their box.