Chocolate Industry

Back Forty: Food crops depend on an army of insects. Now they disappear

In his book, “The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Small Empires That Rule the World”, Oliver Milman opens with deafening silence. The cicadas have disappeared, the crickets too. Without the dull buzzing of bees and mosquitoes, gardens and parks become “lifeless imitations of themselves”. Birds, squirrels and hedgehogs are dying in droves. Then the global food system collapses. Renowned entomologist EO Wilson once said that mankind would only last a few months without insects, an idea Milman dissects in the prologue to his book. “You don’t really know what you’ve lost until it’s gone,” he told FERN.

Insects make up three out of four known animal species, and recent studies suggest they are on the way out: humans are decimating their habitats, disrupting their food supply and poisoning them with agricultural insecticides. In his urgent and heartbreaking new book, Milman – an environmental journalist at The Guardian – explores the damage we’ve done to the insect populations we depend on and what we can do to help them recover. FERN sat down with him recently for an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

So the prologue to your book definitely kept me awake last night. In this apocalyptic worst-case scenario, you describe a world without chocolate covered in a “tsunami of excrement”. How is this future related to insects?

Insects pollinate a third of the food we eat. Without them, you would be without melons, broccoli, cherries, almonds – all the bright and colorful things on our plates. We tend to think of bees and their usefulness, but I think it’s less well known that other insects do a lot of pollination, like flies. In the fly family, you have tiny little gnats. They fly into the cocoa plant, get into that little opening, and pollinate it. Essentially, the $100 billion a year chocolate industry rests on the tiny, slender shoulders of this little gnat. There is no replacement for this. So unless you want [a future with] hundred dollar chocolate bars, the little gnat is your hero.

Now the feces: insects do a lot of unglorious things in our world, and decomposition is kind of at the top of the list. So feces and corpses are broken down by flies and beetles before bacteria can get inside. And obviously, without it, you’d be left in a much messier, disgusting place. I was struck by this example of what happened in Australia in the 19th century when Europeans brought cattle there. They ended up with the whole continent of Australia covered in shit, because they didn’t have a native insect that could break down the manure.

Where exactly are we on this kind of mindless insect mass extinction? Are we at a point of no return?

I don’t think we have a complete picture yet, partly because we don’t even have a complete picture of all insects. I mean, there are 1 million species of insects named, but by some estimates there could be as many as 30 million species. So I think it’s important to understand that we don’t know exactly what the trends are in every country in the world. What we have are very alarming glimpses of these incredible declines.

One of the studies that really caught my attention was a large German study in 2017, where this entomological group tracked data from 63 nature reserves across Germany dating back to 1989. From that time until the publication of their article in 2017, they found a 76% decrease in the average weight of flying insects they catch each year in their traps. During summers, when insects are supposed to be at their peak, they found that the insect population dropped by 82%. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall until today, Germany has lost three quarters of its insects. These are incredible declines – and you see them everywhere. We are therefore in a very worrying situation.

Let’s talk about why this is happening. Your book looks at a number of ways humanity is wreaking havoc on insect populations, but can you talk about agriculture, and specifically monoculture?

I mean, I think the key to a lot of ecological functions is diversity. It takes a diversity of landscapes and plant species to make things work properly. And the problem with monocultural farming practices is that focusing on one or two crops for financial reasons has come at the expense of that diversity – and insects have suffered along with other creatures because of it. As one researcher told me, “We offered them fries, nothing but fries. Even if you don’t like fries or are allergic to fries, you just have to eat fries. So if you’re a bee and all you’re offered is a field of corn or soybeans, it’s basically a desert. And now they [also] don’t have the habitats they once had, grasslands, wildflower meadows, forests – we’ve cut down a third of all the forests in the world since the dawn of the industrial age.

You also devote a good part of the book to pesticides, and you focus particularly on neonicotinoids. One of the most disturbing stories in the book is your description of their impact on honey bees in California’s Central Valley – you link these insecticides to mass mortalities and colony collapse disorders.

Yeah, I talked to a beekeeper who this happened to, and he was flabbergasted to find out that there were just no bees in his hive one day. And it was a phenomenon that was then told by beekeepers around the world. The best guess today is that neonicotinoids are to blame. It is a class of insecticides widely used in the United States.

Researchers have looked into the impact of “neonicotinoids”, as these insecticides are known, and it turns out that they scramble the brains of bees. They play with their logistical functions, their memories; they do not return to the hive because they no longer remember where it is. And it kills them in large numbers, and butterflies and beetles and everything that gets in their way. They [neonics] are also water soluble, unlike other pesticides, which means that as soon as it rains they enter soils and waterways and affect a range of wildlife.

And you write that neonics are 7,000 times more toxic than DDT. It was remarkable to read!

Yes, American agriculture has become 48 times more toxic than 25 years ago. It is an extremely perilous environment for many insects.

A third cause of the insect crisis is, of course, climate change – and at the risk of sounding like a total ruby, I was a little surprised at how damaging it was, as many insects seem to thrive in hot or tropical climates.

I think climate change is interesting – it’s really hammering the bugs way harder than I originally thought, and it’s creating winners and losers. Mosquitoes really like warmer temperatures, for example. According to one estimate, a billion more people will be exposed to disease-carrying mosquitoes due to climate change. Mosquitoes are therefore the winners in this scenario. Bumblebees, less. Bumblebees are kind of sewn into these little sweaters all the time, and so when things get hot for them, their situation gets worse. I think a quarter of all bumblebee species in North America are in decline and climate change is cited as a major contributor to this.

Let’s talk about solutions. Are there ways to avoid this crisis that really stand out for you? Agricultural strategies that can at least slow down this extinction crisis, if not stop it?

Yeah, I think one of the encouraging things about it is that it’s not completely hopeless yet. We don’t need to invent a new vaccine or win a space race. We know what we can do here, and some places are moving towards the right models.

If you look at the European Union, for example, they banned three of the worst neonicotinoids for agricultural use. You can also pay farmers, like the EU has done, to plant wildflowers in the fields so that there are wildlife corridors through the farming areas and it’s not a complete desert. And there is work we all need to do on climate change. If you have a yard, you can give the bugs a break by not caring so much about your lawn, not raking the leaves, not getting chemicals all over the place, and thinking of a range of different native plants than the native pollinators would appreciate.

They are the great survivors after all. They preceded then survived the dinosaurs, they knew five massive extinctions. They can adapt. We just have to give them the space to do it.