Silent Earth by Dave Goulson – a plea for pollinators

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I sit in my garden admiring a myriad of insects, butterflies and bumblebees swirling around the blooming buddleia. The swallows directly above your head are always singing, and while it might sound a bit strange, these diving blue birds are also, in a way, insects. Because swallows are almost nothing but insects processed by their own respiratory system.

Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex and author of several best-selling books on the role of insects, would recall that buddleia only exists through a symbiotic relationship with insects. Most of the 390,000 plant species on Earth depend almost entirely for their reproduction. This living dance has been performed for 130m years and from its interlacings emerge trees and crops essential to human food. Indeed, the “free” pollination service offered by bees and flies to our primary foodstuffs has been evaluated at 577 billion dollars per year by the intergovernmental scientific and political platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

If there were no insects, there would be no insect pollinated plants, no insectivorous birds, fish, spiders, reptiles, amphibians or mammals. Yet these connections are really only half the story, as insects are also the invisible recyclers of the planet’s natural waste.

On all the consequences of a world without insects, Goulson invokes the eloquence of the American naturalist EO Wilson: “If all humanity were to disappear,” he wrote, the world would regain the rich state of balance that existed 10,000 ago. years. If the bugs disappeared, the environment would crumble into chaos.

Goulson’s book sets out to explore how far humanity has traveled towards this invertebrate apocalypse. He considers the deliberate and widespread destruction of nature in general, but he focuses on the catastrophic effects of intensive agriculture on insect life.

Of all the statistics given by Goulson, two are exceptional. The first highlights how little knowledge we have about the abundance of insects. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature is one of the main custodians of the biosphere and monitors the condition of every known variety of mammals and birds on the planet; for insect species, on the other hand, it has data on less than 1 percent.

The other key figure concerns the loss of insect biomass over the past 30 years. One of the main studies comes from a group of amateur entomologists working in Germany where, since 1905, they have supported the longest insect monitoring program on Earth. Findings from the Krefeld Entomological Society (EVK) suggest a 75 percent drop in the number from 1989 to 2016. Most shocking of all is that data has not been established on chemically soaked monocultures in agro- German industry, where one would expect the most dramatic losses to have occurred, but within the country’s nature reserves.

Silent earth is an obvious play on Silent spring, Rachel Carson’s classic 1962 work on the consequences of an earlier generation of agricultural compounds, such as the pesticide DDT. His book led to the outright banning of many of the worst products – however, as Goulson shows, rather than learning from the past, modern governments have let it get worse. In his day, 2 kg of DDT, if deployed with maximum effect, could have killed 74 million bees; 10g of the latest insecticidal agents known as neonicotinoids can kill 2.5 billion bees. Neonicotinoids are now partially banned in the UK and EU, but farmers around the world still apply 400,000 tonnes of these chemicals to crops each year.

In the last quarter of the book, Goulson describes the changes that would prevent another disaster. Its suggestions range from specific policy ideas – such as the introduction of taxes on pesticides and fertilizers – to more general actions. One of his most radical ideas is to considerably expand the offer of allotment gardens. Not only do they outperform intensive agriculture in terms of production per unit area, but Goulson shows that home gardens produce much healthier produce and have proven to be better than urban nature reserves for insect diversity. Even the productivity figures compare favorably with wheat and rapeseed, among the main arable crops in the UK.

Although much of the book relates to the UK, it argues that the final remedy lies in binding, internationally agreed legislation. Goulson shows us what can happen when politicians are pressured to act. In Bavaria, the Krefeld report forced the regional administration to approve sweeping legislation that established a minimum of 30 percent chemical-free farmland, and a massive boost to insect research. Three other German public administrations followed suit with comparable measures.

Yes Silent earth contains one indisputable message, and that is that nature – insects, flowers, plants, trees, birds and mammals, including our species – is one system. National borders make no sense in ecology. This powerful book tells us that we must act as if we understand this essential truth.

Silent earth: Avoid the insect apocalypse by Dave Goulson, Cap Jonathan € 20, 336 pages

Mark Cocker is the author of ‘Our place: Can we save Britain’s wildlife before it’s too late? ‘ (Cap Jonathan)

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