As my previous post highlighted, flying insect populations have dropped a really scary amount in the past 30 years. Pesticide use is considered to be a major cause of this decline.
Read on to learn a brief history of pesticide use, and why they are so heavily relied upon in modern agriculture. I'll also give you my take on this issue from a systems perspective as well as some things we can do collectively and as individuals.
The term 'pesticide' covers any chemical that kills anything deemed as a pest. In this post I mostly refer to a class of pesticides called insecticides - chemicals specifically designed to kill insects.
From the mid 20th century onwards, a major transformation in agriculture spread around the world that aimed to significantly increase global food production to feed a rapidly growing population. It's often referred to as the Green Revolution, and it involved widespread adoption of modern farming techniques and technologies, including the use of high-yielding crop varieties, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides. The Green Revolution is widely believed to have staved off famines in many parts of the world, particularly in India, (although this narrative has also been contested). It also led to greater mechanization of farming, which included the use of tractors and other modern equipment. While the Green Revolution contributed to increased food production, concerns have been raised about the environmental impact of chemicals used and the sustainability of its resource and energy-intensive practices.
Many of the initial insecticides used during the Green Revolution and beyond were found to be toxic to a range of animals, and they persisted in the environment for a long time. They also accumulated in the bodies of animals, including humans. In fact, even today, long after these chemicals have mostly been banned worldwide, some people still have residues of DDT in their bodies.
Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring raised awareness about the environmental and health risks associated with the indiscriminate use of chemicals. The book's popularity and impact led to increased scrutiny and subsequent bans or restrictions on several (now notorious) insecticides, including: DDT, Heptachlor, Dieldrin, Aldrin, Chlordane and Endrin, in most countries around the world.
Today in Australia you won't find any of those chemicals still in use, although if you live in an older home it is possible that your foundations were treated with Dieldrin or Aldrin for termite control. It's something to consider if you choose to use soil close to your home to grow vegetables - it's worth getting a soil test done if that's your plan, because it's known they can persist in the environment for a very long time.
Since the 1990s, a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids (neonics for short) have been widely adopted, in part because they were considered safer for humans and other mammals than the older generations of insecticides outlined above. They were also considered more effective than older chemicals as well, to which some species were becoming resistant.
Insect declines and the rise of neonics
It's interesting to note that the catastrophic declines in flying insect populations that have been recorded over the past 30 years coincide with the worldwide adoption of neonics. As I noted in my previous post, scientists think flying insect populations around the world have declined by a whopping 75% over that time frame.
(Just a little clarification - this means the total numbers have reduced, it doesn't mean we have lost 75% of flying insect species. While some insect species will have undoubtedly gone extinct in that time, the statistic means that the total numbers of most flying insect species have declined markedly. So there are still native bees, butterflies, bogong moths and ladybugs - but most of these are in significantly lower numbers than they used to be. Apologies if I laboured that point to death - I just know that statistics can be a bit brain-numbing.)
Anyone who knows something about statistics will immediately point out that correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation. Perhaps it's just an unfortunate coincidence? As noted in my previous post, research suggests many different causes, but pesticide use is certainly up there as an identified major culprit. There have been a number of studies that point to the role of neonics in the decline of non-target insect populations, particularly bees.
This shouldn't be all that surprising when we learn how neonics work. Neonics are systemic - meaning they transfer throughout treated plants (pollen, nectar, fluids, plant cells - even when just the seeds are treated). These qualities make them highly effective, but dangerous to non-target species, like bees and other flying insects. For example, when canola (also called oil-seed rape) is grown from seed treated with a neonic, the pollen in the flowers also contains small amounts of the neonic. So, when wild bees forage on canola pollen and nectar they get a dose of neonics - and repeated exposure increases the amount of neonic in their bodies. Neonics are also environmentally persistent - that means they don't break down quickly and can accumulate in plant tissue and soils.
In recent years several neonics have been banned in Europe because of their possible role in bee colony collapse disorder, where whole hives of bees just suddenly drop dead. In worse news, it may be that neonics aren't as safe for humans as previously thought, with a range of possible harmful effects from dietary exposure detailed in this research article. All classes of neonics, along with a few older generation pesticides banned elsewhere, remain approved for use in Australia.
You might be surprised to find just how prevalent neonics are here. Here's a long list of all the products on the Australian market that contain neonicotinoids. It's huge! They're not just used in products for agricultural crops, but also a range of products you might buy yourself for your garden, or your pet. As someone generally disposed to avoiding heavy duty chemicals I was a bit disappointed to realise that a range of flea/tick treatments for pets contain neonics, and I may well have used one of them myself on our dogs in the past without knowing.
While neonics are readily available online, I do have some good news if you're worried about them. Since 2018, Australian hardware store Bunnings hasn't stocked any product containing neonics, nor will accept any seedlings treated with neonics. So, while the shelves may be laden with various purveyors of death to insects (largely synthetic pyrethroids - much less environmentally persistent but still lethal to flying insects in the short term) you won't accidentally buy neonics.
Unfortunately, it's not just insecticides that are harmful to insects. It turns out that another pesticide, the world's most commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (known by tradenames like Roundup and Zero) may also damage a range of insects, including bees. If the poor critters escape one chemical they might be done in by another.
What can we do?
If like me, you are pretty horrified by the idea that three quarters of the populations of flying insects may have already disappeared from this planet, and would like to avoid losing the remainder, then please do read on.
I think it's helpful to consider how to approach this from two perspectives: how we can act societally and collectively, and what we can do as individuals. I hope to provide a range of ideas for each, and my suggestion would be to explore just one or two that interest you, so you don't get overwhelmed.
Calling for bans on the most dangerous chemicals
Being a devoutly chemical-free gardener will have little effect if everyone around you, and the majority of farms, still spray chemicals left, right and centre. Collective action is usually needed for for broader societal and legislative change. It was a public campaIgn that led to Bunnings no longer stocking any neonics, so public campaigning is effective.
- If the idea of Australia still allowing neonics that are banned in other countries is concerning to you, you might like to add your voice to a campaign to ask legislators to ban them, such as this Eko campaign, or this petition here.
Understanding the problem as one of design
While focus on single chemicals is a good start, this doesn't address systemic issues - and we permaculture people are always banging on about systems! Many farmers (and some home gardeners) feel they need to use chemicals to get any crops at all because of the armies of whitefly, aphids, blackfly that arrive to devour their plants.
This gets to the heart of the problem - why are there so many 'pests'? Broad-scale industrial agriculture, where single crops occupy large swathes of the landscape, is extremely vulnerable to pest problems and actually contributes to their increase. It's like designing the perfect lunch banquet for them and then being surprised that they turn up to eat it. Big fields of single crops (monocultures - which are needed for mechanical harvesting), create the conditions for the proliferation of pests. Enter the wide use of insecticides to control the number of these insect herbivores.
Ironically, despite years of spraying, many so-called pest species seem to still be quite abundant, while we have seen the populations of their flying cousins drop dramatically. Why is this? As noted above, neonics and other pesticides are lethal to a wide range of species, not just the target pest. So, repeated spraying has the unintended consequence of knocking out the flying insects as well - many of which are also the natural predators of those little herbivores that threaten harvests (for example, lacewings, dragonflies, ladybugs, parasitic wasps). But here's the issue - predators tend to breed more slowly than their prey, so ironically, any regular spraying regime for pests is likely to kill off their predators more effectively than it kills the pests themselves.
To explain: in a balanced ecosystem, there must always be more prey than predators. If things ever reverse, everything goes extinct pretty fast - all the prey get eaten and then the predators starve. So it's a kind of natural law that the lower down you are in the food pyramid, the faster you're likely to breed.
After spraying, the few remaining herbivorous (pest) insects breed quickly and so recover their populations much faster than the predatory insects that keep them in check. Ironically, rapid breeding cycles also means that resistance to certain chemicals can develop surprisingly quickly in a population. There are already several pest species that are developing resistance to neonics.
Meanwhile, the slower breeding predators, (as well as all sorts of other insects with longer breeding cycles, like bees) would have their populations effectively knocked out through regular crop spraying. With fewer and fewer insects in the surrounding environment to control pest numbers, the next season farmers are basically locked into doing the same thing again and again.
In case you're wondering why this issue is relevant to the home gardener as well, consider that agriculture now occupies almost half of all habitable land on this planet. That's a big enough footprint to cause all sorts of disturbances in surrounding ecosystems that will overlap into suburbs and cities. Home gardeners too, who have been encouraged to use sprays to manage pests over many decades, will have also been inadvertently contributing to pest abundance and flying insect declines in much the same way as industrial agriculture, but on a much smaller scale.
To sum up, from an ecological systems perspective, it seems that the problem is that the whole design of modern industrial agriculture favours the proliferation of so-called pest species in the first place. So long as there are vast monocultures, we are creating smorgasbord conditions for herbivorous insects. Banning individual pesticides might improve things somewhat, but as long as a system is reliant on chemical control, then chemicals will still have to be used. Even though they don't persist in the environment for as long as neonics, organic and greener alternatives like synthetic pyrethroids are still lethal to bees and other flying insects if you spray them as well - they are still a form of chemical control. So the design is part of the problem. Insecticides were developed as a solution to a design problem, but ironically also exacerbate the very problem they are designed to fix.
Doing things differently
While chemicals continue to be widely used, there are changes afoot in agriculture. Pesticides are expensive so farmers have an incentive to look for cheaper ways to grow things, especially when the negative consequences of chemical use have become obvious. Added to this is the sobering fact that the main victims of agricultural chemical use are farm workers themselves. Research suggests that worldwide, around 740 thousand cases of accidental acute pesticide poisoning occur every year in agricultural workers. So let's not assume that farmers are 'the enemy' here.
One high tech alternative to insecticides that is already gaining popularity is called 'integrated pest management.' A pest species is managed by a range of techniques including plant resistance, use of other plants, and/or with a biological control, like another insect or sometimes a bacteria or fungus that keeps pest numbers down naturally. Insecticides are only used as a last resort. Integrated pest management isn't the same as organics, but it certainly reduces the amount of chemicals needed. I think it's also important to realise it marks a mindset shift towards working more collaboratively with natural systems and processes, rather than purely exploitatively.
Beyond, and in addition to this, there are now many individual farmers exploring different ways to grow food that not only reduce or eliminate chemicals but also specifically aim to restore ecosystem health - and that includes increasing biodiversity (and more flying insects). Organics have already gone fairly mainstream, but these new techniques often go further than that by creating feedback loops of increasing fertility and focusing on landscape and ecological regeneration, not just sustainability.
Terms like regenerative agriculture and agro-ecology have been coined to describe these shifts in agriculture as it becomes more apparent that industrial agriculture may well be unsustainable in the longer term. Collective organisations are evolving to represent these farmers which are working to change the culture around how we grow food, to change value systems and expectations about what agriculture is, and how it can function in the landscape.
- If regenerative agriculture and agro-ecology are new ideas to you, then check out Charlie Massy's book Call of the Reed Warbler which takes you on a trip to all sorts of farms around Australia and the world exploring how they are regenerating their landscapes. Massy's farm is on the Monaro so he's also a local.
- For a shorter, and even more local, exploration, I very much enjoyed Sam Vincent's book My Father and Other Animals. Both books show that farming can be done differently and still be economically viable, though it often takes some sort of crisis before people are willing to try a new approach. (Note: links take you to Dymocks - not an affiliate link. I'd prefer to direct you to a local business and not give Jeff Bezos any more money)
- If you enjoyed these books, then tell your friends and slowly this knowledge will begin to ripple through our community. Community expectations about agriculture are important. Farmers are people too. Nobody wants to be the bad guy.
Changing the Paradigm
While there are lots of promising directions within agriculture, there are still enormous quantities of chemicals being poured on agricultural land and flying insect numbers continue to decline. A large proportion of the world's food supply is grown with industrial agriculture, and alternative, more sustainable practices are still in the minority in developed countries like Australia. It is no small feat to turn the industrial agriculture behemoth around and try things differently.
It's challenging because we are dealing with multiple systems, from the structure of agriculture itself to market capitalism to our own attitudes to insects and our perceived right as humans to exploit nature for our own ends. It's also extremely daunting to begin to know what to do as a concerned citizen, especially in something so fraught as food production, where mistaken policy can quite literally result in starvation, as the dire situation in Sri Lanka attests.
Systems thinking luminary Donella Meadows gave us lots to think about in relation to system change, and one of the most powerful ways for change to occur is through something called a 'paradigm shift.' She defines a paradigm as:
"The shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions — unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone already knows them — constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works."
So when our deepest held beliefs and values shift, then so do things that are important to us. When this ripples through a complex system like a society, its goals, rules, structures and practices change to reflect that shift in paradigm.
Before this gets way too abstract, let me explain why I have a peculiar optimism about agriculture. To my mind, experiments in regenerative agriculture and the like do represent a paradigm shift. The shift isn't just one of practice, to me it reflects a growing consciousness about working with - not against - nature. The concept of regeneration goes way beyond just sustainability in that it suggests that humanity can collaborate with natural processes to actively revitalise landscapes, increase biodiversity (including of our flying insect friends) and create feedback loops of increasing fertility - not simply keep things as they are.
Permaculture (as one of many forms of regenerative activity) offers quite a dramatic paradigm shift from conventional thinking in its 'earth care, people care, fair share' ethics. I still remember when, during my permaculture design course, it dawned on me that through good design, and a healthy dose of humility towards nature, I could actually do something 'good' rather than limiting my imagination to ways of being a bit less environmentally 'bad'. Consider how liberating it is to imagine having a positive ecological footprint, rather than minimising your current (bad) ecological footprint? It's not easy mind you, when we are all trapped in a system of exploitation and extraction - of both the natural world and in many cases each other as well - but it is possible.
At the same time, regenerative agricultural experiments are reflective of broader trends in society. Environmental concern has been growing for decades and the increasingly obvious effects of climate change are opening people's eyes further to the reality that we are part of nature and everything we do to nature we do to ourselves. Rising social inequality and the cost of living crisis is leading many to challenge capitalist notions of success and question what it means to live a good life. There is huge interest in minimalist and intentional living. There are even some quite prominent voices challenging the most hallowed goal of modern capitalism - infinite economic growth. There is clearly a very big social yearning to feel more connected to nature, and live a meaningful life that rejects at least the worst excesses of corporate greed. If there wasn't, Avatar wouldn't be the biggest movie of all time. Isn't it funny, how I started by talking about insect declines and pesticides, and now here I am talking about changes in social consciousness! But, when we see the world through a systems lens, when we understand that the relationships between things are just as important as the things themselves, then everything is connected! And my point in mentioning all of this is that I think there is a paradigm shift already underway across society. As I see it, the move to regenerative practices in agriculture is just one component of a broader societal shift that says something like: "we are doing too much damage to our beautiful world, yet we are trapped, working longer hours to pay ever rising costs, in a system of environmental and social exploitation. How can we live better, more meaningful lives that don't harm nature and each other?"
In our ever-changing social worlds, our job is not to doubt whether there is a paradigm shift underway. There always are shifts. Our job is to push the shift towards working with, not against, nature, as fast as we can. The clock is against us - species extinctions and climate change threaten to overwhelm us before we get there. Our job is to champion regenerative ways of doing things as loudly as we can.
Back to what we can do
- If you're inspired by these new forms of agriculture, then you might want to join or support organisations like The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, The Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, and Soils for Life who advocate for more ethical and environmental practices that support farmers and consumers. The more funding they can get, the louder their voices will become.
- Perhaps you want to start a petition or campaign to get major supermarkets to challenge their conventional suppliers to radically reduce their pesticide use over a period of say, 5 years - perhaps through integrated pest management? Clearly that campaign needs a creative person
- A quick Google search shows that agronomists - those people who provide advice to farmers - are all very keen to emphasise their sustainability credentials. How do we collectively lobby them to ensure they aren't just greenwashing?
- Can we advocate to update horticulture courses around the world that have taken a very pro- chemical approach in the past?
- Start a group on social media to generate interest in a local insect - perhaps Christmas beetles here in Canberra? You might share sightings or insect counts. Or tell your neighbours not to kill curl grubs in the garden. If you're a local, you could join the Canberra Nature Map citizen science project or join ACT for Bees.
A final word on chemical agriculture. There is a lot of debate about whether regenerative practices can ever fully replace industrial agriculture. Some say that regenerative agriculture will only ever be 'niche' and for wealthy consumers who can afford to pay higher prices for high end produce.
My own take is that we will never know if we don't experiment and try, and farmers who are trying things differently should be congratulated and supported for their efforts and experimentation. One thing seems clear to me - so long as big agriculture continues to damage its surrounding ecosystems and destroy its own soils, it will eventually bring about its own destruction anyway, so we need to try things differently to have any hope of getting out of this predicament.
Now we get to the part that's usually covered in conventional gardening blogs - what can you do in your own life/garden?
- No surprises here but I am going to strongly encourage you to not use chemicals! That covers chemicals for your garden but you might also want to go easy on the indoors and surface bug spray too. This also includes so called more eco-friendly pest control and synthetic pyrethroids too, these are still really deadly to non-target insects if you spray them by mistake.
- Are a few tiny insects really that scary? I'd encourage you to challenge some of the thoughts you have about insects. Culturally we struggle with 'creepy crawlies'. Our 11 year old daughter is especially freaked out by spiders, grubs and caterpillars. She has never touched a worm - despite my best efforts as a keen gardener and long time fan of earthworms. All this to say I get it. I like spiders in principle, but I still get the heebie-jeebies if I'm close to a huntsman! (Ironically I'm much better with redbacks - go figure!) Fast-moving insects in the corner of our vision trigger an instant jump-out-of-the-way reflex in most people, and that's an evolved survival mechanism. Some critters are biters, some are poisonous. I'm not going to say I'm a fan of mosquitoes, because I'm not, but I do recognise they are part of ecosystems. I will encourage you to wear light-coloured cotton or linen clothes with long sleeves and pants in warm summer evenings instead of slathering yourself in insect repellant, and if you do want to use it, go for a bit of citronella instead of the industrial chemicals. And I am speaking from experience - I am of that blood group that mosquitoes particularly love... My point is that we are going to have to make our peace with insects if we are to live in a functioning environment and begin to reverse the extinction processes that are already well underway. Insects underpin the terrestrial food chain - that means everything else depends on them. This means accepting their presence even if we don't like them all, but also observing and understanding that an overpopulation of anything is an indication of ecosystem unbalance, either locally or more broadly. Our job is to observe and see if there are patterns that help explain why certain populations are blooming while others are not.
If you are a food or ornamental gardener, and have been reliant on chemicals to help you out, I don't mean to leave you stuck. We do live in a disrupted ecosystem, so insect pests will often invade, so here are some alternatives to using chemicals:
- Managing bigger bugs - snails, slugs and caterpillars:
- If you have chickens, pick them off and feed them to the girls. If you find those big maggoty grubs in the soil that are curled up into a C-shape (curl grubs), please leave them be. Many are the larvae of the Christmas beetle as well as lots of other native scarab beetles. They don't cause as much trouble as people once thought, and many of them actually eat decaying wood matter and not plant roots at all. In fact, since putting a lot of mulch around I have seen an increase in these grubs in our garden, suggesting that whatever species we have around - it could be one or many, I don't know - are probably helping to break down organic matter and improve the soil. The best way to tell if there is a problem is if any plants look really sad. If everything is healthy, then no problem, even if you find lots when you dig a hole.
- If you're into growing your own veg, you can also try plants that are typically less attractive to pest species (of any size): we find potatoes (poisonous leaves), tomatoes (poisonous leaves), pumpkin and zucchini (so fast growing that once they're past infancy it doesn't matter), and beans (both summer beans and broad beans) are mostly left alone by insects. Occasionally we do get an outbreak of harlequin bugs or leaf hoppers on tomatoes but it depends on the season and I usually just squirt them off with the hose.
- Avoid monocultures in your own garden - plant a diversity of edibles, and mix them up a bit. That way, pest species can't simply climb or slide from one plant to the next without having to go past or through something they don't want to eat first.
- Managing small sap sucking insects
- These ones can be tricky in very sheltered areas. We have a greenhouse and we get terrible outbreaks of whitefly, scale and other tiny sap sucking bugs. If you think about it, a greenhouse is a very unnatural environment, and it's protected from predatory insects (which wouldn't want to live there as there aren't enough flowers to sustain them - more in my next post). We find capsicum gets the most affected, though tomatoes suffer too. For localised outbreaks of a particular plant pest, we use a relatively harmless liquid soap spray. You can buy them off the shelf or use Castille soap (check it says potassium salts of fatty acids, not sodium salts) diluted 1:10 in water in a little hand sprayer. Spray only on the affected plants. A reminder, don't use washing up liquid. It must be a true potassium based soap. Some people add a bit of oil to make an emulsion which is also effective. Note that these sprays can still burn the leaves of plants, and will probably kill any insect if sprayed directly on them, but they tend to not create much of a hazard after they have dried and they break down fairly quickly. That means never spray when bees or other non-target insects are active - you don't want to spray them by accident.
If you have got to the end of this post then I want to thank you for sticking with me though it. Thinking about insect decline and pesticides aren't super fun topics and definitely not light entertainment! But they are important, and I hope that I have left you with a few things that you might consider doing that go a bit deeper than the usual individual action-focused gardening blogs out there.
Given the enormity of the environmental issues facing us things can easily get overwhelming, but it's also helpful to remember that people and societies do change. People's paradigms are shifting all the time - societal change happens when enough people think in a different way. And many farmers and large landholders are already trying to do things differently. They need our support and for us to get the word out there about the cool stuff they are doing.
Sometimes it feels too slow, but attitudes will shift - and sometimes they do remarkably quickly, especially when circumstances demand it and a problem becomes obvious. When a critical mass of people express their concern, law makers do act, and we have seen remarkable recoveries in some species that have been protected. Global whaling bans have led to humpback whale numbers rebounding to a healthy level. Many rivers are much less polluted than they used to be thanks to higher environmental protections. The ozone hole is gradually repairing. All of this was achieved by collective action on many levels.
What will you choose to do? Or perhaps you are already involved in helping to solve this issue? Leave a comment and share your perspective. It's much easier to help when we don't feel isolated and alone.
Look out for my next post - Insect Decline Part 3: Habitat Loss & What to Do.
And in the mean time, may your garden be full of joy - and flying insects.