Jon Proctor, Technical Director of Green Tourism and Chief Executive of Green Business shares his perspective of the plight of our pollinators and the indiscriminate use of insecticides based on research over the last 40 years. From the early days as a “peacetime” use of chemical weapons to the present needs for more targeted pest control be it specialist biological controls and GM, the time is ripe for you to get involved. It seems between 30 and 70% of insects have been lost over the last 40 years and this has had knock on effects to other animals like swallows, swifts and other flycatchers.
It is now 6 months since I first became aware of an imminent issue facing our planet (one of a number we are developing campaigns about). That of our pollinators, the insects. I have grown up since the 1970’s and during that time it has become the norm to use insecticides to manage our farmland and many of our gardens. Farmland in the UK makes up 70% of the space with 25% being arable so it really dominates our land use. It is into this space that much of our fauna and flora seeks to survive.
Farmland has been “improved” over the years and as such has become a more industrial landscape with fewer hedges, less room for nature on the farm and the land is more rigorously used with less fallowing etc. All this has meant our fauna and flora only lives at the margins. This might be an acceptable price to pay for cheaper food and a well fed population and we can rely on our network of nature reserves to remain the domain of our wonderful array of species.
Unfortunately research is indicating that these nature reserves cannot remain as richly biodiverse homes for the natural world and that what we are doing in agriculture has a very strong bearing on our more natural areas as well as the planet as a whole.
Long term research into the biodiversity and abundance of insects in German nature reserves have revealed a 75% decline in numbers since the 1970s and it is expected that this research is true for all of northern Europe.
During this time in fear of insect epidemics we have used a lethal cocktail of chemicals to control insects. Rather than targeted products we have used general insecticides some of which are highly toxic. Many of the commoner products the organophosphates and organochlorines are nerve acting chemicals (nerve agents) which were developed after the second world war as a potentially useful industrial product for peace time. Some of these products were banned in the US and Europe but are still widely used in developing countries such as in Africa and India. The worst of these products are DDT or Lindane and bio-accumulate in the food chain (meaning predatory animals get ever higher concentrations of the chemicals till they become highly toxic). It was in the 1960s that a book was written called Silent Spring about the loss of song birds and other insect predators as a result of these chemicals and the likely health effects. This led to the ban on DDT use in the US and Europe.
What was not fully appreciated was the way in which these chemicals can spread around the globe and so we see concentrations of DDT in the livers of seals and marine animals even huge distances from the origins of these chemicals such as in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Just as recent articles on plastics reveal that what we do in one part of the world affects others and that we have been treating our oceans like a giant rubbish dump and even though we do things to avoid disposing wastes at sea much end up there just as do nerve agent chemicals like DDT.
It surprising that we put so much attention into nerve agents which were used in tiny doses in Salisbury and yet do so little to the chemicals used on food crops. Its incredible that we consider banning chemicals in Europe and the US but have done so little over the last 50 years on global bans. And its astounding to realise that 99.7% of the chemicals we use on crops goes to waste as they affect benign creatures (mostly our pollinators) even natural insect predators and that only 0.3% goes to the targeted creatures (Pimentel D. Amounts of pesticides reaching target pests: Environmental impacts and ethics. J Agric Environ Ethics. 1995;8(1):17–29)
Surely this has to change and change quickly. One friend of Green Tourism, Tony Juniper (who presented our first GOLDSTAR awards in London) wrote a valuable book “What Has Nature Ever Done For Us” in it he calculated that the value of pollinators to our economies are over 361 billion dollars per annum a staggering value. Pollinators include bees but actually the majority of pollination comes from host of insects so our bee campaign is just a part of a wider awareness raising action related to insects.
Of course we can lobby for change and even use technology to help. Bees have been the subject of much attention and people love bees even if they find other insects less attractive and who hasn’t seen the Scottish lady and her pet bee on Facebook
Fortunately neonicotinoids were banned from outdoor use in the EU in 2018 as these have been demonstrated to affect our bee species and cause colony collapse but that is still far from enough. As much of our food comes from all over the world we should be vigilant about how it is grown and not only that we should recognise that these chemicals spread far and wide and we are ruining our home and our future. One way to effect change alongside lobbying is to change our buying habits. One of the easiest changes to make is to support organic foods. Granted it’s a little more expensive but it is still only marginal and by linking your buying with reducing over consumption of food the affect on your pocket will be minimal.
I still have a long way to go but I only buy organic oats, blueberries, mushrooms and celery and support organic where I can find it. I have saved money on my shopping by buying meat portions and halving what I eat in any one meal so I can still enjoy the taste but can follow my flexitarian habits but I know I should do more and I will.
My big idea to share is to get hoteliers and cafes to serve organic porridge with organic blueberries as a choice rather than the unhealthy and expensive English or Scottish breakfast. I am sure the big breakfast still has a place as a luxury but not as a staple and if we made this change we could really send a strong message to the agricultural industry of the need to refocus.
I can remember the 1970s when during my school holidays we as a family would spend a day driving to Cornwall in our Vauxhall viva. In those days we would have to stop at least a couple of times to clear the windscreen of the insects we would squash on our journey. Nowadays these stops are unnecessary as we drive through industrial and agricultural wastelands where relatively few insects survive and chemical sprays are used routinely. These indiscriminate chemicals are often cited as necessary to provide us with the food society needs and that we would face some kind of famine if we changed our habits. This is untrue and wasting 99.7% of chemicals is economic craziness as well as a crime against our planet.
It is possible to produce crops which are resistant to certain insects and I am a fan of intelligent well managed genetic modification (GM) and biological controls. GM is just another scientific discipline like chemistry. Just like chemistry some GM is bad but also some can be good and its time we had a much more well informed debate on these subjects.
I hope this short story gives you food for thought (this pun is intended) and that you go on to take an affirmative action to improve your health, the health of the planet and raise awareness with your community. We have a lot to do in the next 10 years and changing our use of chemicals in agriculture is vital.
If you would like to switch to organic porridge or support one of our other actions in our bee the change campaign then please let us know so we can share your story with others in Green Tourism.