The decline of insects – The canary in the coal mine?

A recent study by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris Wyckhuys (2019) in Biological Conservation has shown that the world of insects has been experiencing significant declines over the last decades. In fact, the authors warn that around 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction. Since insects constitute two thirds of all terrestrial species on earth and thus play a fundamental role in the ecosystem, their decline will have drastic impacts on the future of ecosystem functioning and integrity: it is estimated that around 80% of plants rely on insects while around 60% of birds use insects as their food source. But also economically, insect decline may become tangible: in the US alone, $57 billion derive from services provided by insects.

A study in PlosOne that was released in 2017 signalled that over the course of 27 years in Germany a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass has been occurring. Even though these dramatic findings found reflection in the German media, political circles have been slow to respond. As a consequence, a petition for a referendum was launched in Bavaria that aimed for a change in the Bavarian Nature Conservation Act to better protect biodiversity and to make biodiversity conservation a primary objective of all activities in agriculture and forestry, which includes an advancement of organic agricultural activities.

The ruling Christian Social Union (CSU) and other conservative and libertarian parties have rejected the petition, arguing that it puts farmers at a great disadvantage. Here I argue that it is wrong to reject the petition while at the same time it is wrong to launch a petition without proper involvement of those a change in the law factually affects most. Since the decline of insects affects us all, the inclusion of all stakeholders is more crucial than ever. By today, however, 900 000 signatures for the petition have been collected, forcing the Bavarian Premier Markus Söder (CSU) to act.

The decline in insect populations points towards what is to come in the future. Their protection does concern us all as well as future generations. To sacrifice this important issue for political quarrels does not solve the problems at hand. The inclusion of scientific knowledge, paired with a gradual change in practices of agricultural land use that enable farmers to adapt and the ecosystem to recover should be the way forward.

As a response to the successful petition, Söder has called for roundtable to find a cross-party solution. At this point it is unclear whether this roundtable will include representatives from farmers, from the scientific community, and from others working on the land. This can only be hoped for since a merely political debate may cause more rhetoric than tangible action.

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