Remember the movie Armageddon? When we put aside all our differences to save the world from an asteroid?
Well, the good-bad news is, that moment of unity may be upon us. We can finally stop bickering about the southern border wall because we’re about to be wiped out by the collapse of nature.
According to a recent meta-review of 73 studies worldwide, the insects we rely on to pollinate our crops and nourish entire ecosystems are dying like…well, like flies. Bug species are vanishing at eight times the rate of mammals, birds, and reptiles. If we do nothing to curb this decline, in our grandchildren’s lifetime the insects will all be gone, along with all the organisms they support.
I know: another day, another apocalypse. Global warming, a nuclear arms race, a $22 trillion national debt…and now the collapse of the food chain. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, responding to the 1980s’ savings and loan crisis, Whaddya think, honey? Shall we just order out for pizza tonight?
But in fact, we know how to avert this asteroid. And by saving the planet from insect extinction, we could 1) save US farmers from destitution 2) improve our diets, our health, and our food security, and 3) stop bickering over the border wall.
What’s annihilating insects, it turns out, is “intensive agriculture”— heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to boost yields. That describes US agriculture. Our farmers grow basically three crops—corn, wheat, and soybeans—because these are crops whose insurance premiums the federal government subsidizes. To maximize profits (since everybody’s growing the same 3 crops), they need to maximize yields, which they achieve by pumping chemicals into their acreage. But by maximizing yields, they contribute to the global glut that drives down commodity prices. Given what they’ve spent (those chemicals don’t come cheap), they can’t profit …or at least, not without those federal subsidies. It’s a vicious cycle that’s bad for bees AND farmers.
Whereas in countries without subsidies, global market pressures alone are incentivizing sustainable agriculture at scale. Why? Because conserving soil nutrients, preserving pollinator habitats, and limiting pesticides reduces farmers’ input costs while maintaining (or improving) current yields—boosting their profits such that they don’t need federal aid, and securing their future growing capacity. Consumers may pay a bit more for staple foodstuffs, but because their choices send a direct signal to farmers as to what crops to grow, demand will dictate supply, instead of supply dictating demand. (I think we can agree that the glut of corn-based products on our shelves isn’t doing us any favors, health-wise.)
In short, we can combat the collapse of nature by subsidizing US farmers’ transition to sustainable agriculture, providing financial incentives to diversify their crops, plant cover crops, minimize tillage, and set aside buffer acreage for insects and other “beneficials” to thrive.
The most recent Farm Bill, which Trump signed into law last December, makes some progress in this direction. But it isn’t too early to demand our legislators get working on an overhaul for 2023.
Join me in getting that message to Congress. That’ll be one less bee in my bonnet.