Agriculture, Insects, Ecology & Economics

An Entomologist Sees Farms as Part of the Solution to Biodiversity Loss

It’s called the “windshield effect” — a harsh but effective way to gauge insect populations. The more dead bugs smashed on the front end of your F-150, the more live ones buzzing around in surrounding fields. Scientists, and anyone who drives for that matter, are noticing much cleaner windshields these days. That’s because, says entomologist and South Dakota farmer Jonathan Lundgren, we are experiencing what some call the “insect apocalypse.” The journal Science reported in April that about a quarter of the world’s terrestrial insects have perished in the past three decades. The study found that the Midwest had some of the most dramatic declines, with 4% of its bug population being lost annually.

It’s become clear that chemical-intensive, monocultural agriculture is playing a major role in the decline of insects. The lack of habitat and foraging areas, coupled with insecticides that indiscriminately kill the good bugs along with the bad, is having a devastating impact. But during a series of Land Stewardship Project Soil Builders’ workshops in southeastern Minnesota, Lundgren cautioned against seeing profitable farming as inherently the enemy of insects.

“This isn’t a bee problem, it’s a biodiversity problem,” he said. “Agriculture can be part of the solution.”

In fact, it’s to farmers’ benefit to create agricultural systems that benefit bugs. Some insects can be major pests, but the majority are beneficial. Besides providing pollinator services, insects play critical roles in the workings of the ecosystem, doing everything from forging links in food chains to helping with decomposition and recycling. For example, according to the science writer Brooke Jarvis, dung beetles save U.S. ranchers $380 million annually by helping break down manure.

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“For every species of pest, there are 1,700 species of insects we can’t live without,” said Lundgren.

The entomologist, who was a scientist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for 11 years and has an extensive background in researching ecologically-based pest and farm management systems, says the loss of insects is not a farming problem per se. Rather it’s how that farming is carried out. Relying on industrialized systems that leave no room for biodiversity is a disaster not only for bugs, but for humans, he argues.

Lundgren has the proof to back up this contention. In 2016, he started Blue Dasher Farm in eastern South Dakota as a place where he and his team can study regenerative farming practices that promote biodiversity while boosting farmers’ bottom lines. The working farm raises livestock and crops, as well as keeps bees. Through Blue Dasher and the Ecdysis Foundation, Lundgren and his team are looking at ways biodiversity-based farming systems can be scaled up and adapted on a wider basis.

One Blue Dasher project found that farms raising corn without insecticides and using regenerative methods such as multi-species cover cropping, no-till, and integration of livestock via rotational grazing were nearly twice as profitable as their conventional counterparts, even though they yielded as much as 29% less grain. According to the study, which was published in February 2018 in PeerJ—the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences, these regenerative farms had many more quantities and varieties of insects when compared to their conventional counterparts. As it happens, bio-inventories showed the conventional cornfields had 10 times more insect pests than their regenerative counterparts — an indication that insecticides and lack of diversity are wiping out the beneficial insects that keep the harmful ones under control.

The regenerative farmers were more profitable because they didn’t pay for insecticides and expensive genetically engineered “stacked” seed varieties. And because the biologically rich soil on these farms was generating more of its own fertility, the producers spent less on purchased fertilizers as well. The connection to soil health is key — Lundgren said there was a striking correlation between higher organic matter levels and increased profitability.

“Why on earth do we gives prizes to the farmer who can grow the highest yield in the county? It’s about the profits, right? Organic matter levels are what we need to be giving prizes for, not yields.”

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