Made by filmmaker Jason Taylor and shot in India, A Silent Spring is a beautiful new film capturing the secret lives of some of the world’s most minute and yet most vital creatures. Here Jason writes about the impact of pesticides in agriculture, the real winners and losers, and why the industrial dependence on chemicals is driven by nothing but profit.
According to Cornell entomologist David Pimentel, “it has been estimated that only 0.1% of applied pesticides reach the target pests, leaving the bulk of the pesticides (99.9%) to impact the environment.” Harmful environmental impacts of pesticide use include the loss of biodiversity and elimination of key species (e.g. bees), water pollution, soil contamination and pest resistance, resulting in the need for increased application of pesticides, or formulation of alternate pesticide.
I think it was Rachael Carson’s book in the mid sixties that brought about a global consciousness regarding the effects of pesticides and herbicides being used in our food systems. ‘Silent Spring’ was the book that mobilised movements around the world, driven by the millions of people who had been witnessing their natural biodiversity slowly vanish. As a child in England during the seventies, I clearly remember the different seasons that brought a huge variety of beautiful insects to our gardens, streets and most importantly, to our playgrounds. The Stag Beetle, Red Admiral Butterfly, daddy-long-legs and strange stick like insects that would hide in the suburban hedgerows. All these insects, along with the songbirds have now more or less disappeared in the cities and their suburbs. They are all but silent.
A week ago, I was with Dr Debal Deb on his farm for a workshop teaching Indian farmers how to identify and cultivate indigenous varieties of rice using traditional methods that embrace natural bio-diverse systems. Set deep in the Niyamgiri hill range of Odisha, I was once again reconnected to the kinds of sounds that I had remembered as a child. Early morning birdsong, frogs croaking, busy bee’s whizzing back and fourth and the low background frequency of millions of other insects, all going about their lives in a healthy, functioning ecosystem.
For three days I wandered around the fields and tried to capture some of these rather elusive creatures that live on us, below us and above us and are one of the most important parts of our ecosystem. Without them there would be no life on earth.
There are ‘good’ insects and there are ‘bad’ insects in our agricultural environments but if we spent more time working with nature rather than against it, we will be able to find ways to balance these systems without having any negative effects on our complex ecosystems. For every insect pest that exists in nature, there are eight insects that are their predator, all we need to do is develop systems that enable us to use nature to create the balance it has been sustaining our planet for millions of years.
The Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus sp) along with its larvae is one of the fiercest predators of the field but the use of pesticides only results in its death along with hundreds of other insects that are either beneficial or harmless to paddy. Similarly, the Pied Paddy Skimmer (Neurothemis tullia) is not a threat to agricultural crops and is in fact a natural predator, eating mosquitoes, flies, green leaf-hoppers and brown plant hoppers.
In parts of India and Sri Lanka, natural pest control mechanisms have been used for centuries. They include smoking the fields by burning certain herbs windward, and passing bags coated on the inside with sticky material over the crops. Both are reported to give promising results in reducing their impact. Netting and hand picking are also used to control these bugs; this is a very real alternative to chemicals.
China now has to pollinate some of its fruit trees by hand due to the environmental devastation that overuse of pesticides have caused in parts of the country.
One estimate is that there are around a billion insects living on the planet at any one time, that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. In terms of both number of species and number of individuals, insects are a dominant form of life on Earth. There are somewhere between 800,000 and 1,000,000 insect species known – that’s more than all other animals combined. Scientists estimate that with those insect species yet to be discovered, there are between 80 and 100 million species of insects sharing the planet with us.
A female common Indian Crow butterfly (Euploea core) is not a threat to agricultural crops. Butterflies – like bees – are pollinators. They are vital given that one-third of the food produced for human consumption is dependent on pollinating insects. In addition to these benefits, the insect serves as a food source for birds and other wildlife.
There are alternatives to using chemicals but as with most industries, it always comes down to money rather than our environment, health or ethics. Globally the agricultural chemical industry is worth more than $300 billion, using an estimated 4.6 million tons of chemicals and growing. With the current state of revolving door politics and lobbying, it is expected to grow substantially.
For more information:
For a paper on the basic importance of biodiversity:
The importance of biodiversity by Dr. Nitasha Malhotra
For a far more detailed empirical assessment on the issue of paddy biodiversity:
Biodiversity and Complexity of Rice Farm Ecosystems: An Empirical Assessment by Dr Debal Deb.