A new study has found that insect species are facing a critical decline in numbers, potentially spelling doom for the entire animal kingdom.
The research, first reported by the Guardian, reveals that a staggering 40 percent of all insect species are facing a dangerously steep decline while a third are endangered.
In a new review of scientific literature from the last 40 years published in Biological Conservation, the authors note the “dreadful” degradation of biodiversity, noting:
“The pace of modern insect extinctions surpasses that of vertebrates by a large margin.”
Continuing, the study adds:
“We estimate the current proportion of insect species in decline … to be twice as high as that of vertebrates, and the pace of local species extinction … eight times higher … It is evident that we are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods.”
The decline of insects – which has been eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles – has been holding steady at a startling 2.5 percent per year.
Researcher Francisco Sanchez-Bayo from the University of Sydney, Australia, told the newspaper that the “shocking” rate means that within the century we could see global insect populations simply vanish. Sanchez-Bayo went on to explain:
“It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.”
Insects remain, by far, the most numerous and varied animals on the planet, with numbers estimated to outweigh all of humankind by at least 17 times. Likewise, they outnumber all sea creatures as well as land mammals. As such, the nearly 30 million species of insects form the backbone our ecosystems, playing an essential role as pollinators, nutrient recyclers, and base members of the food chain.
The implications of the loss of insects will be felt, first and foremost, by creatures whose diets are directly reliant on insects such as amphibians, birds, fish, and reptiles.“If this food source is taken away, all these animals starve to death,” Sanchez-Bayo said. Such was the case in Puerto Rico, where the ground insect population has fallen by 98 percent in just over 35 years.
Butterflies, bees, and moths have been among the worst-impacted insects.
While previous studies were largely restricted to certain regions – including a 2017 study from Germany noting a 75 percent decline in flying insects over the course of 30 years – the latest study shows that the decline in bug populations isn’t isolated to individual ecosystems alone, but encompasses the entire Earth-system.
Sanchez-Bayo pinned much of the blame on industrialized and capital-intensive agriculture, explaining:
“The main cause of the decline is agricultural intensification … That means the elimination of all trees and shrubs that normally surround the fields, so there are plain, bare fields that are treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”
The researcher believes that newer classes of insecticides, such as neonicotinoids and fipronil, are likely culprits due to their routine use and lingering effects, noting that “they sterilize the soil, killing all the grubs.”
The study urges authorities to rethink the manner in which the food industry is run:
“A rethinking of current agricultural practices, in particular a serious reduction in pesticide usage and its substitution with more sustainable, ecologically-based practices, is urgently needed to slow or reverse current trends, allow the recovery of declining insect populations and safeguard the vital ecosystem services they provide.”
The study largely draws from research in North America and Europe, with tropical regions remaining largely unaccounted-for.
Yet the study shows that the impact on insect biodiversity has impacted a wide variety of insects, including both “generalist” insects that can adapt to other environments or food sources and “specialist” insects that rely on a tiny niche in the ecosystem, such as moths who rely on one particular plant to survive.
Mincing no words, the researchers stressed the gravity of the trends laid out in their paper:
“The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet.
“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades … The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”
It is imperative that humans re-think our agricultural processes. While there has been a recent increase in desire for organic produce, to prevent reaching a tipping point that we cannot return from, factory farming and capital-intensive agriculture should heed this warning and adjust accordingly. Organic and less harmful insecticides and pesticides are available but typically with a higher cost and insecticide producers like Bayer (formerly Monsanto), continue to make it far easier and cheaper for farmers and corporations to use their products than more environmentally friendly options.