Why are insects in decline, and what can farmers do about it?
Research has shown that our food and farming systems can help to resolve the climate, nature and health crises, particularly if we quickly commit to a wholesale transition to agroecology.
Agroecological farming works in harmony with nature and closely follows ecological principles to produce great, sustainable food. Benefits include better animal welfare, climate change mitigation and an increase in on-farm biodiversity… which is why our Soil Association agroecology ambassador, Andy Dibben, swears by this nature-friendly farming approach when it comes to boosting the bug levels on his land.
But why is this important, exactly, and how can farmers turn their grounds into an insect-friendly haven? We spoke to Andy about the crucial role bugs play within sustainable food production, and the steps he’d recommend farmers take to draw more all-important insects to their land…
How are insects beneficial to agriculture, and why is their decline such a problem?
Critically, most human food crops are pollinated by insects. In fact, 78% of all plants in European ecosystems are insect-pollinated – so without bugs, there would be very little on our plates.
Beyond that, insects are a key food source at the bottom of many food webs for birds and mammals. Therefore, their presence on your land is crucial to the presence of wildlife in general… a boost in biodiversity which, in turn, contributes to the robustness and efficiency of your nature-friendly farming system.
What is more, insects play a key role in recycling dead plants and organisms back into the soil, adding to its overall health. They can take up a guardianship role for your crops, too: ladybirds eat aphids and parasitic wasps eat caterpillars, as examples, and thereby protect your produce from being snacked on!
A pollinator at work!
With all of that in mind, there are some particularly beneficial insects that you should look to attract to your farmland, which can be categorised as follows:
- Pollinators, who contribute to plant growth: such as bumblebees, honeybees, hoverflies, solitary bees and wasps
- Predators, who eat crop-loving species: like ground beetles, rove beetles, hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds
- Food sources who fill up wildlife: including caterpillars, aphids and slugs.
Insecticides have devastated insect populations to the edge of extinction, which dramatically impacts on natural ecosystems (including the ones listed above). In turn, this loss of bugs influences not only the effectiveness of nature-friendly farming systems but hurts the environment in general. Widespread habitat destruction from farmers removing hedges, woodlands and more is also contributing to the struggles that insects are facing across the UK, so it’s vital that - as stewards of the land - we take better care of them to continue farming in a sustainable way while looking out for the natural world.
What are the most effective ways that farmers can combat insect decline?
Go organic! The farm I currently work on has been organic for over 30 years, and this is reflected in the incredibly vibrant and diverse ecosystems present on the land. During my seven years here, I have focused on trying to funnel the amazing insect population we have into the middle of the cropping areas, harnessing their natural talents to boost our output.
On that note, nurturing complex ecosystems on your farmland is hugely important. Insect species are extremely diverse and require a wide range of habitats to thrive, so farmers should be looking to nurture and expand on all their existing natural habitats, as well as establishing new living areas for insects that are specific to their site and situation. Habitat-building could include:
- Planting trees: increasing the hedgerows, woodland and other trees on your farm. Farming with trees, a process called agroforestry, falls under the umbrella of agroecology and offers a wealth of benefits (to bugs and beyond)
- Establishing diverse wildflower areas: various types of flowers attract various types of bugs, so planting several species is sure to boost your insect population
- Keeping some grassland rough: grass pollen is an important source of protein for insects. Don’t cut all your grass short!
- Creating ponds and wetlands: these kinds of habitat are crucial for lots of insects. However, they are also incredibly prone to pollution, so it’s important to manage water run-off (you could do so with buffer strips).
A range of flowers to suit a range of insects...
You also want to make sure you’re managing the soils on your farm, and testing them regularly, so that they’re as healthy as possible. Avoid pesticides and other artificial chemicals wherever possible to keep the ground beneath your feet flourishing, as your farm’s soils are home to thousands of species of insect, arthropod and mollusc. Once your farm’s natural ecosystems are in full swing, it should become clear that the diverse array of insects on your land is effective enough to replace pesticide use, anyway.
We nurture the soil on our farm like the critical resource that it is. Cultivations where necessary are kept shallow, and we conduct long rotations with long periods of resting and fertility building in-between. This is done with legumes and grasses to build nutrients and organic matter. Diversity of cropping is also very important and contributes both to the soil health and biodiversity across our farmland. Ultimately, we don’t work in isolation from other areas of the farm, and all of our nature-friendly efforts are made with a ‘whole farm’ approach in mind. Considering the breadth of your land and overall goals of your farm is crucial if you want your agroecological efforts to have wide-sweeping results.
What made you passionate about agroecology? Is there one thing you’d recommend to farmers looking to be more nature-friendly?
For me, it was an awareness of how delicate and fantastically intricate the natural world is, and how much we can still learn from observing and mimicking natural processes. That’s an amazing thought: and there are so many ways that farmers can innovate with agroecology by conducting nature-friendly experiments on their land.
Farmers should view their farm as one whole ecosystem to be managed, too… applying an agroecological philosophy to their whole farm, not just to certain areas. Integrating food production with biodiversity, soil health and more is possible, and it’s not a question of prioritising one aspect over another. Everything in nature works together.
Wildflower strips among crops.
Ultimately, I passionately believe that managing biodiversity on farms in a proactive manner is not just a charitable gesture. If embraced wholeheartedly, the benefits of thriving ecosystems above and below the ground are a key competitive tool for farmers of the future as well as for society as a whole.
Interested in learning more about agroecology’s place in the future of UK food and farming? Download the Farming for Change report.