What the Insect Crisis Means for Food, Farming—and Humanity | Civil Eats

What the Insect Crisis Means for Food, Farming—and Humanity

Journalist and author Oliver Milman discusses the findings of his new book, how declining pollinator populations could harm vulnerable communities, and the most promising solutions.

journalist oliver milman and the cover of his new book, the insect crisis

Many of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators. There would be no chocolate without the tiny midges that pollinate the cacao tree, and strawberries would look shrunken and misshapen if they relied on the wind, rather than insects, for pollination.

But human activity has pushed many of these pollinator armies to the brink of extinction, according to Oliver Milman, an environmental reporter for The Guardian and author of The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World. Declining pollinator diversity threatens the production of most crop types, yet these critical insects are often misunderstood and vastly unappreciated.

“We need them far more than they need us.”

Insects also fill other important roles. They break down waste, help recycle nutrients through the soil, and serve as food for birds, amphibians, and other animals in the same food chain humans are a part of.

“They are a foundation for our terrestrial ecosystems, they’re food for many of the animals that we cherish and admire, and they help pollinate around a third of the food we eat,” Milman says. “But culturally, we don’t value them.” And yet, he adds, “We need them far more than they need us.”

Civil Eats spoke to Milman about the scale of the insect crisis, how declining pollinator populations could harm the world’s most vulnerable communities, and the most promising steps people can take to turn the tide.

What is the scale of this crisis, and how did we get here?

We have some pretty frightening glimpses of what’s happening in various parts of the world, but we still don’t know the full picture. We don’t even know how many species of insects are out there. There are 1 million named species, but there could be 5 million, 10 million, or 30 million species. It’s hard to know the scale, but there are some pretty ominous signs out there that something’s horribly amiss.

We’ve seen huge declines. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany has lost three-quarters of the flying insects in its nature reserves and protected areas. In the rainforests of Puerto Rico, there has been a 98 percent decline in biomass of insects since the 1970s, and in Denmark, a 97 percent decline since the 1990s. In North America, one in four bumblebee species is in decline or threatened with extinction. There’s a patch of protected forest in New Hampshire where beetle abundance has fallen 80-odd percent since the 1970s.

“In parts of the world, insects are in free fall—not gradual declines but absolute carnage.”

The list goes on and on and on. These are quite startling declines when you think about it. We may have lost 95 percent of the world’s tigers, for example, but that’s happened over 100 to 150 years. We’re talking about a sharp drop in insect numbers of a similar magnitude, but over just a few decades. That really struck me during the writing of this book. In parts of the world, insects are in free fall—not gradual declines but absolute carnage.

We are still working out the reasons why, but there are the big three that entomologists and scientists point to. One is habitat loss. We’ve chopped down a third of the world’s trees since the industrial era began, and we’ve converted huge tracks of grassland and wildflower meadows, which are insect-rich, into industrialized areas of farming with a single crop on them, and highways, urban areas, and industrial zones.

Pesticide use is another. Not only have we made these areas into deserts, in terms of food sources for insects, but we poison them. There’s one estimate that U.S. agricultural land has become 48 times more toxic than it was 25 years ago, just through this continued layering of insecticides, herbicides, and so on.

The third big thing is climate change. As the world heats up, we’ve heard stories of fish swimming toward the poles where it’s a little bit cooler, but insects exist in a fairly narrow temperature band. The U.S. spring is also arriving 20 days earlier than it did a century ago, so we’ve completely thrown off the natural order of things.

What are the implications for what we eat and how we produce food? 

They’re potentially very serious. We are living on a planet with an increasing global population. Resources are extremely unequally distributed, but there are more and more mouths to feed—we’ll have an estimated 10 billion people by the middle of the century—at a time when there’s a pollination deficit in many parts of the world. The United Nations has already warned that there is a potential food security crisis that will unfold this century because of that kind of shortfall.

We’re already seeing research showing some fruit and vegetables are suffering in terms of yield because there just aren’t enough pollinators to propagate them. In parts of China, teams of people are having to fan out into orchards and hand pollinate the fruit using sticks with brushes on the end because there just aren’t enough bees around. It’s not going to be like that everywhere; it’s not like all bees are going die out and all food is going to disappear. I wouldn’t want people to think that kind of worst-case scenario will happen, but prices for certain foods will certainly increase.

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There’s a fear that malnutrition will increase because a lot of the foods that insects pollinate are the nutritious stuff that is very good for us. There’s a fear that diseases caused by a lack of nutrition will increase; there’s one estimate that there’ll be a million deaths or more each year globally because of heart disease and other conditions because of a lack of nutrition due to pollinator declines. We are heading toward an uncertain, and rather worrying, place in terms of food production this century.

You write in the book that poor and vulnerable communities will disproportionately suffer from this crisis, just like they do in every crisis. How so?

“[Subsistence farmers] are the ones who are most dependent on pollinators. They have a plot of land that they farm that’s not just for trading and selling elsewhere—it’s to feed themselves, their families, and their communities.”

We know that bees pollinate apples, cranberries, melons, broccoli, cherries, and so on, and insect pollination is responsible for so many more kinds of food—chiles, cardamom, coriander, other herbs and spices, chocolate—and a lot of these foods are grown in poorer parts of the world and transported to wealthier nations. Chocolate is a $100 billion-a-year industry, for example, which obviously provides economic returns for [these countries].

That is under threat, but so are the small-scale subsistence farmers in parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. They are the ones who are most dependent on pollinators. They have a plot of land that they farm that’s not just for trading and selling elsewhere—it’s to feed themselves, their families, and their communities. They need to grow their own food to survive. If they are unable to do that, or they are diminished in their ability to do that, then that’s extremely harmful and worrying.

You have an example in the book, Knepp Farm in Southeast England, where the land was restored from cropland, wildlife moved in, and human intervention was reduced. How feasible is that for the average U.S. farmer? What are the lessons there?

For some U.S. farms, it is [plausible], and there are some farmers looking at the regenerative agricultural model and moving in that direction quite aggressively. Nothing quite on the scale of Knepp yet, unfortunately, but we may well see that. So, for some farms, it is [plausible], but for others, it’s not viable. It’s not like you could grow the volume and type of food you would need if every farm was like Knepp. That’s the dilemma that we’re going to be facing, in terms of feeding as many mouths as we need to feed, is you want to reduce pesticide use, bring nature back in, and not have this intensive monocultural farming paradigm. But at the same time, you want to keep output up. So, do you cut down more forests to create more farmland? Or do you just more intensively farm the land you have?

There’s no easy answer there. It may come through a technological breakthrough such as vertical farming, indoor soilless farming, and so on. But I think either way, even if you have that kind of big-ag, monocultural farming template, you can still have some of the ideals of Knepp. It’s not like you have to give over all of your land to rewilding, let it go, and see what happens. But you can have it on the borders. You can have it in areas you consider unproductive, or you’ve left fallow for a bit. You can have a network of habitat going through your land that’s welcoming to insects and other wildlife.

It’s not either-or. There is a kind of in-between situation where you can have the philosophy of Knepp mixed in with this kind of standardized model of farming we have now.

You mentioned how in China they’re starting to hand pollinate. What other agricultural solutions or adaptations are you seeing in response to declining pollinators?

Yes. That’s a very last-resort kind of thing we hope won’t happen everywhere else. If we get to that point, things would be particularly dire. But there are some good things happening in Europe. For example, the European Union has banned three of the worst neonicotinoid pesticides for outdoor use, and France has gone further by banning them in greenhouses too. These chemicals are extremely successful in killing large amounts of insects, not just the pests, but everything else around them. They’re 7,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT.

There’s also some interesting work done with farmers to pay them to put wildflowers, herbs, and spices at the borders of their fields. So rather than just get rid of all weeds and have a single crop in your field, [they] have a border of wildflowers and other things that insects can eat and survive on and, importantly, creates a network of habitat through agricultural areas so insects have a place to survive. That kind of work is ongoing in Europe, and some people are agitating for that to happen in the U.S. too.

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There’s also public awareness rising around the importance of bees and how important it is to save them. There’s lots of citizen work going on, for example, in the U.S. around monarch butterflies. People are very attached to them, planting milkweed, breeding butterflies at home and releasing them. There are lots of things going on to try and turn this around. It’s just not quite at the scale we need yet.

“They’re quite resilient. They’re the great survivors of our world. They’ve survived five mass extinctions.”

What is it going to take to get to that scale? 

It’s going to take some stricter regulation of chemicals. In the U.S. there is no real requirement to show that your chemical doesn’t adversely affect bees before it’s allowed on the market. And even though the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that many chemicals are terrible for pollinators, they still allow them. They put in what they call safeguard measures to try and lessen the impact, but there’s still an impact.

There needs to be much more work done on habitat loss, habitat restoration, and connectivity, as well as wildlife corridors where insects and other animals can pass through, feed, mate, and have a big enough gene pool to survive. And we need to act on climate change, which is neither a minor thing nor something we’ve been very successful in doing so far.

There are also lots of small things that people can do too. If you have a backyard, you can let it grow a bit; don’t cut the grass as much or rake the leaves as often. You can plant flowers and other plants that are attractive to native pollinators. You can lessen the amount you spray, and insects will bounce back quite quickly. They’re quite resilient. They’re the great survivors of our world. They’ve survived five mass extinctions. If we just give them a chance in places—including if you have a garden—they will do so. There are lots of things there, big and small, but I wouldn’t like people to think this is hopeless.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tilde Herrera is an editor at Civil Eats. She is also a writer and editor who covers business, food, and sustainability. Read more >

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