UN warns decline in insect species could spell disaster

Photo: Myriam Zilles, Pixabay

The UN has warned that bees, butterflies and various insects that act as pollinators are disappearing from the globe at an alarming speed. Experts say over 40 percent of insect species around the world are threatened with extinction and warn that this could have a devastating impact on humankind.

In addition to the importance of protecting bio diversity within the food chain there is the consideration that about three fourth of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators. I spoke to Martin Rexa from Friends of the Earth about the gravity of the problem, what needs to be done and how each and every one of us can contribute in a small way.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková

“The problem is quite serious. If we look at the statistics of the decline of the species they are quite alarming. On a global scale two-fifths of all insects are in decline and are threatened with extinction. And insects are vital to the workings of the eco-system since they are part of the food chain. If we lose the insects it will put the eco-system in jeopardy and we depend on the eco-system and its services. This decline in the number of pollinators is global – it directly affects all of us.”

What effects would it have –if they were to continue disappearing?

“It is hard to say what would happen to the food chain if this trend were to continue – there could be some breaking point –when the whole eco system would collapse. But if we look at the current situation then the decline in pollinators impacts the production of food. For example in Europe 80 percent of crops and wild flowers depend on pollinators. So if they continue disappearing food production will be significantly lower. There is a clear connection between the yields of crops and fruits and pollinator activity so it would cause problems in food production.”

So it would threaten the world’s food supply. What about the inter-dependence of species?

“Yes, that is  also a serious problem. We do not see the declines only in pollinators and insects but also in birds because they largely feed on insects, so if the pollinators and insects start disappearing so will birds. And of course, birds are another part of the food chain so there will be other impacts. It is hard to say how it would develop in the long-term and how soon we could approach some breaking point where the whole system would collapse. But it is evident that we shouldn’t let this continue.”

Over how long a period has this been happening?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

“Since the two main reasons of the decline are climate change and land use –mainly intensification of agriculture-we can trace the signs to the 1950s and 1960s. But the situation has been getting worse in recent decades as the intensification of agriculture continues. In Europe and the developed world this intensification is already very high but it is now happening in the developing world as well.”

What can be done to reverse the process?

“Of course the main thing is to fight climate change –and that is not just about bio-diversity but about the survival of humankind and the second big step is to transform our agriculture so as to make it more friendly to biodiversity, and not just that, because healthy agriculture leads to healthier food and cleaner water - we need to transform our food system and how we produce food.”

Is the government aware of the problem and taking steps to resolve it? What about the European Union – is there a common policy on this?

“After WWII the EU agricultural policy was mainly yield-oriented, because Europe needed to secure food supplies for its growing population, but when it became obvious what problems were arising with the intensification of agriculture the common agricultural policy started to reflect new needs, although the process is not yet sufficient.  However now there is hope that the European Union and the European Commission are taking this more seriously. In the European Green Deal the EC published strategies relating to biodiversity and the food system and they outline goals to be achieved by 2030 which give us reason to hope, but it will depend if these goals will be taken seriously by member states and if Europe will really try to achieve them. For example, one of the goals is that in agricultural landscape there should be 10 percent natural, non-production features which would provide a living space for pollinators and other species. There is also a goal to decrease the use of pesticides, or to increase the area of organic farming, which is how agriculture could go hand-in-hand with nature protection.”

Photo: Barbora Němcová

I read recently that bio-rings are being established around Prague with plants rich in nectar. To what extent would such steps help?

“These nectar-rich rings are also covered by EU subsidies, although farmers and individuals can do these things themselves. They are definitely beneficial, because they offer a mixture of flowers that pollinators like. It is good that these bio-rings are pesticide and fertilizer free so they give insects the space they need – that is important. They are definitely beneficial, although I think it would be even more beneficial –at least here in the Czech Republic – to renew natural landscape features such as hedgerows, solitary trees, lines of trees or buffer strips which would be permanent and would provide space for animals, birds and insects.”

Can people help individually – by not mowing their lawn too often for instance?

“Yes, there are a lot of ways in which individuals can help. As you said, by not cutting the grass too often, by not having a sterile, mono-cultural lawn. But what is also very important, and I encourage people to do this, is to buy food from farmers whom you know or organic farmers where you know they are taking care of the landscape and farming in an eco-friendly manner. I think we all need to learn the true value of food and to discuss what sort of landscape and food we want.”

So there is plenty that individuals can do on a small scale. What about this fashion trend of buying hotels for insects? Is that any good at all?

Photo: Monsterkoi, Pixabay / CC0

“Yes, that is one way to help, but all you really need to do is let part of your garden get a little messy, with a bit of wood, overgrown grass and so on, in order to give them some space.  What we need to achieve is the most diverse space possible, because that is what not only insects but all other wild animals need. Today you do not see much of that in the Czech Republic – if you look at the landscape you see very large fields where animals and insects cannot find living space. ”

With regard to the problem of disappearing insects –how much time does mankind have to turn things around?

“Well, as I said, it is hard to predict what will happen exactly, but I think we should not wait for it to happen. It is clear that people and politicians have started realizing that this path is not sustainable –so we should definitely start now.”