Advances in vet and human medicines may have unintended consequences for the environment.
A few years ago a pest controller told me that I was lucky to live in one of the UK’s most rural counties. He added that, due to the prevalence of livestock farming, worm parasites were a problem for not only cattle, dogs and sheep. If you’ve ever prepared wild meat or fish, you’ll realise how reliant we are on vet medicines to keep parasites at bay.
Much of our ability to do this is down to the Nobel Prize winner for medicine this year who discovered the compound avermectin, the active ingredient behind modern worming pesticides (or less ‘Silent Springesque’, shall we call them medicines) used to help livestock farmers today.
The same week, during a walk on the hill, I noticed an excessive number of dead dung beetles lying around sheep and pony manure. Had the beetles – like wild bumblebees – suddenly been overcome by the number of mites attached to their body?
We take for granted that pesticides are ostensibly there to help us profitably produce affordable food – whether increasingly unfashionable (soon to be banned?), though undoubtedly effective neonicinoids for oil seed rape production or the regular use of ivermectin to ensure efficiency in livestock production – without too much thought that excessive applications may have an unforeseen impact on flora or fauna.
Sub-lethal is an expression used by scientists to say that something has an effect on something without killing it. We all drink coffee but if we tanked through 42 espressos, it could kill us. The same applies to still active pesticides excreted by livestock and consumed by dung beetles. Some of the beetles I saw on the hill, if not almost dead, looked decidedly wobbly.
Two years ago the winner of the Ig Nobel prize – a light hearted engaging take of the Nobel Prize – studied ‘Dung beetle use of the Milky Way for orientation‘. Perhaps the next time we pop a pill for a headache or treat livestock for worms, we think about ensuring that our vital dung-dealing invertebrates don’t lose their way.