The countryside should not be a peaceful place. It should be humming with activity. While it’s hard to sometimes avoid humans, the real racket should be insects.
From revered butterflies and bees to reviled wasps and ticks – insects have been hitting the news. We are paying them the most attention since Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’.
Her 1962 book is worth a re-read. If only to observe the raw narrative, as an early-warning environmentalist raised the alarm on newly concocted chemical insecticides being applied without any safeguards. All caution thrown to the wind – a wind which blew chillier when birds dropped from the sky and fish went belly up in rivers.
There’s more in the book than meets the eye. This paragraph caught me unawares when I’m thinking Carson would be full-on organic. “All this is not to say there is no insect problem and no need of control. I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities. Not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects”. She adds “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used.”
Today’s much more accurately applied, highly sophisticated agro-chemicals are hugely efficiently at keeping pest insects at bay. But are also proving to be insidiously persistent in the wider environment.
Overall weights of dosage are down, but toxicity loads are up. Some of Carson’s words are still ringing true today. In the 60 and 70s, nascent environmentalism did not have the megaphones of today’s broadcasting tools. And in any case, society was too excited then of not having to rake beetles out of crop stores, tend fly-blown livestock or handpick aphids off vegetables. To worry about side-effects of the new chems.
Modern media has now wired up the megaphone. And some. To the extent that the internet is not your friend if you want to explore, with free-thinking curiosity, complex nuanced issues around the decline of insects or judicious use of pesticides. Especially when framed within competing narratives on food production, increase of insects pests, climate change, political risk and habitat variables.
Much easier for naysayers to simplify the language, without too much critical scrutiny, translate into apocalyptically headlines lamenting the lack of insects mashed on car windscreens.
Much more subtle, way under the radar, is Defra’s former Chief Scientific Adviser’s personal blog. (Unfortunately now deleted due to author’s role on govt’s SAGE Covid-19 panel. Here’s some thoughts from him here and here). He explored with objective examination, the German study on the decline of insects in nature reserves, value of scientific uncertainty, and morality of researching pesticides.
Informed uncertain science
Uncertainty is a ‘dead hand’ on a politician’s simple catchy slogan. A matter Mr Gove admitted when I challenged him in an interview for saying: “there are no tensions between productive farming and care of the natural world” when the use of pesticides is an obvious tension.
We must heed warning signs around overuse of insecticides, pest resistance, use of commercial pollinators, and the lack of diversity in cropping (think heterogeneity). While also being alert to those overplaying their hand in framing complex issues.
Perhaps rather than single paragraph petitions, we should lobby government to fund new solutions. From precision application of pesticides, learning from organic practices, investing more into Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – and seek to reduce prescribed prophylactic use of agro-chemicals (including on pets).
“Uncertainty is a ‘dead hand’ on a politician’s catchy slogan”
Dung and out
I wrote a gritty blog about dead dung beetles on the same day that the chemist who invented the wormer (avermectin) was awarded the Nobel Prize. Charismatic bees have their champions; it’s the less iconic ‘bugs’ we need to watch over. Create habitat, reduce chemicals, innovate practices – otherwise we’ll all be buggered by the silence of the flies.
Addendum: Defra consultation on sustainable use of pesticides close 26 Feb 2021
First published April 2019 on Knight Frank website. Revise new links/edit Jan 2021