I begin with a confession. This summer is the second time I have tended a garden since I was a child alongside my grandfather. For most of my adult life, I was too busy trading organic faire, building businesses—doing what I could to heal the planet through food and agriculture.
I am enjoying this garden with its prolific beans, squash, tomatoes and red Peruvian corn. It’s aswarm with bees, pollinators and insects who work to seed the bounty.
With all I’ve read about the mass extinction of insects, it makes me ponder. What would happen to my garden if they all disappeared?
We are indeed in the midst of a worldwide apocalypse of insects. According to a recent meta-analysis of global insect decline, 40 percent of insect species could face extinction in coming decades.
The main drivers of this extinction appear to be habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanization, pollution mainly from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, biological factors including pathogens and introduced species, and climate change.
The authors warn of a “catastrophic ecosystem collapse” if we don’t change the way we farm.
To slow or reverse current trends, we need to change our agricultural practices, meaning seriously reduce pesticide use and employ more sustainable, ecologically-based practices. Action is urgently needed allow the recovery of declining insect populations and safeguard the vital ecosystem services they provide.
Scientists warn that this ecological crisis of biodiversity loss is on par with the climate crisis.
Now, a new peer-reviewed study shows how an explosion of toxicity for insects over the past two decades threatens our very food supply.
This is the first study to quantify how toxic our agricultural lands have become for insect life. It was published in the journal PLOS ONE and co-authored by Friends of the Earth senior staff scientist Dr. Kendra Klein.
What does this study reveal? It shows that:
- US agriculture is 48 times more toxic to insect life than it was two decades ago.
- Neonicotinoids account for 92 percent of the increase in toxicity.
- The persistence of neonicotinoids creates a cumulative toxic burden in the environment that is much higher than that experienced by insects 25 or more years ago. This is because neonicotinoids are considerably more toxic to insects and far more persistent in the environment than other commonly used insecticides. While others break down within hours or days, neonicotinoids can be effective at killing insects for months to years after application.
- The increase in toxicity measured by the study is consistent with the reduction in beneficial insects and bird populations observed in recent years.
Goodbye bees, and bye-bye birdie.
All those honey bees, bumblebees and butterflies make up the basis of our food webs and sustain life on Earth. They play a critical role in the agricultural production of crops that feed us all.
Pollinators are responsible for 1 in 3 bites of food we eat. Without them, we would face shortages of some of our most nutritious foods, including nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy and more.
What would my garden be without the tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and eggplant?
I would miss the birds and frogs that eat insects for they would all die from lack of food. Later on, the animals that eat those birds and frogs would also die of hunger.
Eventually, animals at the top of the food chain could face extinction. We humans rely mightily on insects.
What solutions can be implemented to save the insects and ourselves?
Banning neonicotinoids is a good start. In 2008, Italy instituted a ban on their use as seed treatments for corn. In an evaluation five years later, researchers found a “clear and dramatic improvement” in the number of bees and colonies in the region. They also found that the ban did not impact farmers’ yields of corn.
Fostering organic farming that protects pollinators and other insects is another very important step.
Research shows that organic farms support up to 50 percent more pollinating species than pesticide-intensive farms, and they help other beneficial insects flourish.
Another recent study shows that organic farming can actually help reverse pollinator decline.
Organic farmers grow healthy and abundant food without the use of an estimated 900 pesticide ingredients allowed in non-organic farming, including neonicotinoids.
Instead, they use ecological farming practices like rotating crops, increasing crop diversity, fostering natural predators of pests and building soil health to improve plant immunity to control pests naturally.
It’s time to take action!
The implications of this study are clear: we need to rapidly shift U.S. agriculture away from reliance on pesticides that harm bees, butterflies, and biodiversity toward ecological farming methods like organic.
Tell Congress to pass the Saving America’s Pollinators Act to ban neonicotinoids. We know it’s possible because the European Union has already done it. Friends of the Earth makes it easy to ADD YOUR NAME HERE.
Friends of the Earth is also advocating for a bill introduced by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) to end the use of neonicotinoids in wildlife refuges.
This study only reinforces my belief that organic agriculture is the path to solving many of our modern problems. Organic can save the insects in my garden and us humans from an ecological disaster.
When you choose organic, you might just be saving yourself.