- Sofia Pineda Ochoa, MD and Bob Rapfogel
Vanishing insects spell trouble for humans
Scientists are warning that insect species are declining and vanishing at an alarming rate. And while many people may view them as mere “pests,” in reality, insects are the essential base of the ecosystems that support our very lives.
"Love them or loathe them, we humans cannot survive without insects"
As Dr. Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex put it: “[I]nsects are at the heart of every food web, they pollinate the large majority of plant species, keep the soil healthy, recycle nutrients, control pests, and much more. Love them or loathe them, we humans cannot survive without insects.”
The fate of humans is inextricably and quite literally tied to the fate of insects. And, it turns out, insect populations have been PLUMMETING in the last few decades in a dramatic and terrifying way.
What is the status of the insect decline?
A recent study out of Germany reported that, in the last 27 years, there has been a 75% decline of flying insects. Three-fourths gone is a few short decades. That is quite a decline.
And it’s not just in Germany where insect populations are in a freefall.
For example, in the Puerto Rico rainforest, 80% of the insects in the leafy canopy have vanished since the 1970s, and in the dry forest in Mexico insect populations have fallen by an astounding 80% since the 1980s. Butterfly species on farmed land in England has dropped by a staggering 58% in just nine short years, between 2000 and 2009.
And it’s not just a few places where insect numbers are declining. It’s everywhere. A landmark study on insects AROUND THE WOLRD published in the Journal of Biological Conservation, found that: “The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year - suggesting they could vanish within a century.”
While “2.5% per year” may not sound like much, it most definitely is. As the researchers noted, a 2.5% rate of annual loss means in “10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.”
You read that correctly – scientists are warning that insects, the most abundant animals on the planet, are headed towards extinction threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.”
How critical are insects for the planet's ecosystems?
In a word, they are fundamentally critical. Insects have unique and essential ecological functions, from recycling the nutrients of dead animals and dead plants back into the soil, to controlling pests. Their numbers – the amount of insect mass present – matters tremendously for the ecosystem services they provide.
I will briefly touch on just two key functions insects provide that relate to food:
(1) Providing a food base
Insects themselves are the food base for many other animals, including birds, bats, reptiles, amphibians, fish and some mammals. Their role is crucial because these other populations would collapse if insects are gone. In other words, if there are no insects, then there are no birds, no reptiles, no amphibians, and so on.
In other words, as Dr. Francisco Sánchez-Bayo of the University of Sydney said, “If this food source is taken away, all these animals starve to death.”
(2) Feeding humans through pollination
Insects also indirectly feed humans, and in a major way. That’s because insects pollinate many of the plants on which we depend for food.
In fact, pollinators help to produce 75% of our different crop species. That's how important they are to our diets and our food security.
Why you should care about biodiversity
As Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University concisely said in an outtake from our documentary Endgame 2050, “People ought to care about biodiversity only if they like to eat, or if they like to be healthy.”
His point is that biodiversity, which very much includes insects, is not just “nice” to have. We literally depend on it for our survival. The ecosystems of the planet need the services of other species – including insects – to function, which is why scientists are so forceful in the language they use to describe the current insect situation.
Other scientists have been similarly blunt in the language they use to describe the importance of biodiversity and the dire insect situation.
For example, Dr. Sanchez-Bayo from the University of Sydney said, “If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind.”
Dr. Dave Goulson of Sussex University said, “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”
Why are insects going extinct?
One of the main reasons we are losing insects is the exact same reason why we are losing so many other animals: habitat loss. Species are going extinct because we have taken, and continue to take, an obscene amount of wild land to turn into more and more farmlands.
Farming consumes a staggering 50% of all of the planet’s habitable land.
Of course, farming is not the only activity that drives habitat loss – urbanization, road and rail development, and many other things do as well. But farming is (by far) the largest user of land on the planet – occupying half of all habitable land.
And, as one scientist aptly noted, “Farmland has very little to offer for any wild creature.” And this, of course, includes insects as well.
The widespread use of pesticides is, not surprisingly, also a serious problem harming insect populations.
It seems abundantly obvious, and expected, that dosing landscapes with strong toxic chemicals would be dangerous for a lot of things, including insects.
Yet, according to a chief scientific adviser to the UK government,regulators around the world have falsely assumed that it is safe to use pesticides at industrial scale and “[t]he effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored[.]”
Urbanization and Climate Change
Urbanization and climate change are also significant factors killing insects.
It’s easy to see why this would be the case. If farmlands don’t have much to offer for insects (as noted above), then pavement and cement wouldn’t either. And many insect species, including those in the tropics, have adapted to very stable conditions and have little ability to survive rising temperatures caused by climate change.
What can you do to help stop insect collapse?
Pesticides are obviously not helping the insect situation. So, whenever you can, choose organic and avoid using pesticides.
Ditch animal foods
Habitat loss is the most significant driver of species extinctions, including (as noted above) with respect to insects. And while agriculture occupies a staggering about of land in general, it’s animal agriculture in particular that is disproportionately so land-intensive.
According to the United Nations and others, animal agriculture is the number one user of land on the planet, and it is the leading driver of deforestation in the world.
Eating animal foods is an extremely inefficient way to feed ourselves, because producing animal foods requires substantially more land, energy and water compared to producing plant-based foods. One of the main reasons for this is that animals eat more food than they produce.
For example, you have to feed a cow about 30 calories, just to get one calorie of edible meat. And, according to scientists from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, of all the calories we invest in raising animals for food, we only recover a fraction – on average around 12% in the form of meat, dairy and other animal products.
Ditching animal foods is something we can all do, starting with our very next meal, and it also happens to be very healthy. Even Harvard’s School of Public Health acknowledges that “a plant-based diet is the optimal diet for living a long and healthy life.”
Address human population growth
As Sir David Attenborough said, "All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder — and ultimately impossible — to solve with ever more people." This is true, including for protecting insects.
Our species, modern humans, has been around for about 200,000 years. And it took us all that time to reach a population of one billion, which we finally did, very recently, in the early 1800s.
But today, a mere two centuries after that, we've multiplied eight times over. There are nearly eight billion humans on the planet now, and we're on track to reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050.
Today humanity is no longer living sustainably. And that is a vast understatement – we are not just living unsustainably, we are literally coopting nature and its resources for ourselves at the expense of destroying the foundational ecosystems that support us, while driving the annihilation of countless other species in the process (including the insects).
Efforts to slow our population growth must be taken with urgency, but must also take an approach that respects and promotes human rights.
Supporting gender equality and women’s rights around the world, as well as access to education and family planning, as well as the abolition of horrid practices like child marriages, are all fundamental human rights that are critically important in their own right. However, they also happen to be some of the most impactful and important actions we can (and must) take to slow and stabilize our population growth.
Another important action to help reduce birth rates is simply raising awareness about the situation in which we find ourselves. If people knew and understood the severity of the impact our overpopulation is having on the planet, many would consider it in planning their own family size.
To state the obvious directly, the natural world would benefit enormously right now if we had less children. I think this is pretty undeniable and self-evident
Will we change in time?
Do we have the foresight and motivation to make changes in our lives and our behaviors so that we stop destroying the planet, or are we doomed to just keep doing what we’re doing and ruin everyone’s chance for a future – including the insects and including ourselves?
I don’t know the answer to that. But time, of which we are rapidly running out, will surely tell. That is why the tagline of our environmental documentary Endgame 2050 is “Humanity’s Last Chance is Now.” It’s meant to be literal.
Watch the full ENDGAME 2050 documentary below:
(or click here for more viewing options)