For some years, I have been noticing subtle changes on the farm where we live and grow vegetables. When we first arrived in the late noughties, in the west of Wales along the stunning Ceredigion coast, I remember our bathroom, in which we left the light on at night for our young daughters, being filled with a dazzling array of moths and other bugs through the summer months. We had White Ermines with fluffy heads and elegant spotted white wings, Cinnabar Moths in black and red, Herald moths, Peppered moths, Old Lady moths, Brimstone moths in bright yellow, Antler moths looking like old scholars, an occasional Elephant Hawk moth in taupe and pink, and once an Emperor moth. We marvelled at their uniqueness and utter beauty.
Over the years, but more pressingly in the last couple of years, we’ve had fewer and fewer moths in the bathroom at night, something that worries me deeply. Their disappearance seems to be accelerating. Even with our windows wide open, there are only two or three lured into the light. This morning though, I found a Magpie moth in the sink, still and on its way to dying.
My husband and I discussed several times over the summer the rarity of cabbage white butterflies in our brassicas this year, generally abundant in our fields. This spring was cold and wet, and it seemed forever before we saw insects appear in greater numbers – and we’re on an organic farm where there is no pesticide use. Climate change is shifting the calculus of survival, and the late frosts and heavy rain in April and May made it especially hard for butterflies, beetles and ladybirds this year. You can see in the quiet arithmetic of instinct that there are fewer and fewer insects about.
In 2018, when I first read about the catastrophic decline in insects in a New York Times article, The Insect Apocalypse Is Here, I wept my way through the piece, with a profound sadness for the decline of our natural world. The increasing disappearance of insects across the globe should shake us to our very core, but small things are easy to miss or forget or dismiss. Our loss of the insect world could quite possibly herald the end of the world as we know it, full stop. We may find ourselves, in naturalist E. O. Wilson’s words, ‘clinging to survival in a devastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age’ in which ‘the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs’, as quoted in the New York Times. Our options for planetary health are dire without them.
The planet is unquestionably turning against us, as we have turned against it, and we can no longer look the other way and pretend we were unknowing. This summer has been extraordinary, as the impacts of climate change arrived in a fury around the world: unprecedented temperatures, fires across Europe and parts of the Middle East as well as Siberia and the Pacific Northwest of the US (which is usually temperate and cool), while other parts of the world suffer devastating floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. But climate change is only one contributor to biodiversity loss. Our global food system is far and away the more significant driver.
In the UK, insect decline is linked also with the decline of birds – more specifically with farmland birds. With the rise of industrial agriculture, so much changed about farming in the last 70 years or more, as James Rebanks has written about so vividly and poignantly in English Pastoral: An Inheritance, an important read for anyone concerned about food, farming or the ecology of our planet to which these things are inextricably linked. Rebanks’ book follows three generations of farmers – his grandfather, his father and himself – and the transition from traditional mixed farming to more industrialised practice, recounting, as he writes, the terrible devastation of wildlife and the environment along the way as well as the impact on those farmers like his father, caught in a financial limbo between old and new.
The practices brought in by ‘industry’ are something we must most profoundly eschew in our present situation. Diversity in farming is a fundamental principle – that is what rotation is about (movement, change, rest). It is grounded in difference, not sameness. The shifting of crops each year provides many things; plants take different nutrients from the soil, so changing where they are planted each year means the soil changes each year as well, renewed with green and animal manures and compost and ready to provide new nutrients to new crops. Change is a constant in mixed farming and that change has value in the system, such as moving crops around which also helps to reduce the impact of pests, without the use of herbicides and pesticides. Change creates opportunities for micro-organisms, insects, birds and animals to thrive. It is no surprise that when mixed farming practices fell into decline, so did the biodiversity that lived in harmony with it.
The scale of industrial farming has significantly altered land-use and this has implications for the insect biomass that will reverberate up the food chain, ultimately, reaching out to us – the apex predator of the planet. Pesticides and herbicides have played a significant role along the way in the decline of bees and an array of other pollinators that we depend upon for a third of our food. In massive monocrops of wheat and corn, there are virtually no insects due to the level of pesticides and herbicides used. These chemicals are also more broadly contributing to the ‘insect apocalypse’. Between disappearing habitat and deadly pesticides, our insects are taking a beating.
We have two options here and two options only. We continue with a heavily industrialised food system, still hugely reliant on fossil fuels, that is devastating the biodiversity of the planet, wiping out 24,000 of the 28,000 species at risk of extinction on earth; or we go ‘Back to the Future’, to borrow a phrase and move forward with agroecological regenerative mixed rotational farming that embraces a holistic engagement with the land that is farmed, ensuring that everything in and on it has a place within a frame of practice that could be called ‘Ecology Now’.