A Sugar Coated World

Written By: - Date published: 8:00 am, October 24th, 2017 - 42 comments
Categories: capitalism, disaster, Economy, Environment, farming, farming, food, global warming, science, sustainability - Tags: , ,

According to this study carried out over a 27 year period on nature reserves in Germany, the volume of flying insects in summer has plummeted by about 80%.

Quite a few articles of late have made the observation that the days of the car windscreen being ‘bug splat city’ of a summer evening’s drive seem to be thing of the past. And I think many would say the same about the congregations of flitting moths that used to dance around outside lights left on at night.

According to this study  by the US Dept of Agriculture, we can sensibly suggest that the nutritional content of plants has dropped by about 30% since the beginning of the industrial revolution  (ie, since 1840 or thereabouts).

Off the back of insect numbers taking a dive, bird numbers are taking a dive too. So for example, starling numbers are down by about 80% across the UK since the mid 1970s,  and they are now on the endangered list (red listed). You can go through google keying in various birds and the change in their population if depression is your fancy.

Various media commentators have been putting these crashes in bird and insect populations down to farming practices and our use of agri-chemicals. Now, not to put too fine a point on it, but that argument’s bullshit. Yes, mono-culture and the use of insecticides most definitely affect insect and bird populations. But the declines are global and not limited to heavily farmed areas, or countries employing modern, chemical reliant modes of agriculture.

From this article (Yale University) – “According to global monitoring data for 452 species, there has been a 45 percent decline in invertebrate populations over the past 40 years. DIRZO, “Defaunation in the Anthropocene” – SCIENCE (2014)”

The common global factor affecting insect numbers, isn’t mono-culture or chemical use, but atmospheric levels of CO2. High CO2 levels induce plants to accumulate more sugars at the expense of protein. And we know what happens in that scenario. We know that increased sugar levels and diminished protein levels equates to increasing degrees of malnutrition and death. We could flip over to various sustainable farming practices tomorrow morning, do it across the entire world, and insect numbers would keep dropping.

Table (a) and (b) below show the shift in the carbon /nitrogen ratio (essentially the sugar/protein mix) of goldenrod samples from 1840 onwards in response to CO2 levels, and  the resultant drop in the plant’s protein levels.

Since the more recent drop in nutritional content of goldenrod tracks the drop in other studied crops/plants from the past 40 years, it would seem safe enough to assume those other plants/crops (that we have no historical samples extending back to the 1840s for ) would show a similar long term decrease in nutritional content as that exhibited by goldenrod. That being the case, insects that rely on plants as a food source are pretty well screwed. And as a consequence, any plants that rely on insects for pollination are pretty well screwed. And anything that relies on insects as a principle food source is likewise screwed. Not only that, but the poor of our own species whose main source of protein is from plants, yup, you got it – they’re screwed.

So yeah. Maybe sugar coating the world by sparking up every bit of fossil we can lay our hands on isn’t such a good idea after all. Not that you’d pick that up from any government policy in any part of the world that’s supposedly designed to head off global warming.

Policies proclaiming no new internal combustion engines for sale by 2025, ’35 or whenever; net zero emissions by 2050 by way of trade or tax or whatnot; and any other damned thing I’ve come across by way of government action on global warming are so far wide and so far short of the mark, that the policy makers and the politicians behind them ought to be, at the very least dragged through the streets to stocks where they can be pelted and buried under whatever increasingly useless starchy fruit and vegetable we can lay our hands on – at least while we have enough insect pollinators around to provide us with ever more starchy fruit and vegetables.

But you know that what we do now is what we’ve always done before and will probably do in the future.

We’ll continue to be party to a general culture of encouragement that claps and yelps for the brave foresight of stupid politicians and idiotic policy makers whose policies explicitly and primarily promote this economic and cultural shebang before all else. And we’ll continue to snatch at the false hopes that high-ride on the magical thinking behind the latest “techno-fix“. And we’ll do that because we’d much rather entertain notions of human indomitability and of ‘progress’ than open our eyes to the yawning chasm of physics that sits between us and the future.

It’s called “stupid”: Doesn’t end well.

42 comments on “A Sugar Coated World”

  1. esoteric pineapples 1

    I noticed that starlings were nesting in the eaves of the semi-derelict house I bought so when I fixed the house up, I cut round holes in the new eaves so they could continue to do so and made it so it is very hard for rats to get to the nests.

    I only have a quarter acre section but have some goats (fed with food from off the property) and chickens and ducks, plus I put lots of tiger worms in the soil and planted lots of trees and let the grass grow long so I’m pretty lucky to have heaps of birds around. Plus lizards as I made some “lizard hotels” of stones and bricks they can be safe in.

    We need to get away from seeing nature as something to be dominated. All properties, big and and small, need to leave at least 10 percent of their land wild – much like the Bible idea of a 10 percent tithe to give to God.

    • Bill 1.1

      Don’t get me wrong esoteric. What you’ve outlined and what you suggest are both laudable. (The ‘jungle’ around my place used to be a garden too 😉 )

      But build all the safe places and encourage all the wild flowers or what-not that you might wish for – and living things are going to continue to die, and probably at an increasing rate and across an ever broadening range of species, simply because we burn fossil fuels that raise environmental CO2 levels that are turning what were once valuable food sources into carbohydrate rich “junk food”.

  2. weka 2

    Can’t fault the conclusions there Bill.

    The only thing I would say is that I see it as a both/and situation. Climate change affects the food chain globally and insects are a linchpin part of that. Agriculture also affects insects (and microbia) which has a local effect but because of the scale will also be having a global effect.

    The reason I’m looking at it that way is because the solutions need to be systems thinking based. At the moment we are still largely basing our responses to climate change on mechanistic thinking. Green tech or CCS etc, it’s all fiddling with this thing and that will reduce that thing over there. What we need is to radically change our whole systems, and that includes standards of living supported by fossil fuels and industrial agriculture.

    The headline on Monbiot’s article is stupid. But industrial farming is so utterly damaging to the ecosystem and is now so widespread and growing* that I’m happy enough to put it up there with climate change. Not in a ‘which is worse?’ competition, but in a ‘this is a concurrent problem that urgently needs our attention’ way.

    We can’t separate climate change from food production, because they are having interrelated effects, but also because the thinking that underlies both is the thing that is killing us and everything else.

    (as an aside, I think you are comparing all insects globally and flying insects in German reserves. The numbers are different, and the reasons are going to be complex and interrelated).

    *there’s that gnarly population issue again.

    • Bill 2.1

      Ban the use of all insecticides and whatever other chemicals today and insect numbers will continue to plummet because we’ve completely fucked their food source by spewing too much CO2 into the environment.

      Introduce the most holistic agricultural practices world-wide today, and insect numbers will continue to plummet because we’ve fucked their food source by spewing too much CO2 into the environment.

      Stop burning fossil today and common industrial agriculture – besides much else – falls over or becomes impossible (so there’s the change) and CO2 levels might then drop at a rate that averts or halts what’s being increasingly referred to as ‘the sixth great extinction’ – that we’ve brought into being.

      So (unfortunate analogy) not sparking any more fossil kills many birds with one stone, while simply changing common agricultural practices achieves nothing beyond a change in agricultural practices that leaves the effects of global warming to be the broom that clears up the mess we’ve made.

      On insect numbers, I’m not comparing but just providing the stats for flying insects (Germany) and the 452 species of invertebrates studied on a global level by Dirzo et al.

      And population has got nothing whatsoever to do with any target for less than 2 degrees C of warming. Concentrations of wealth on the other hand play a major role – the very richest among us (according to the studies that have been done) are responsible for about 50% of our global CO2 emissions.

      • Robert Guyton 2.1.1

        Bill – what surprises me is that insects haven’t adapted at the same rate CO2 has increased; insect populations are capable of rapid assimilation and change in response to external factors, so why this hasn’t happened in this instance puzzles me. My understanding is that many insects feed on sugars for energy then on protein for reproduction, but still, the figures provided seem … curious to me. I hope insects don’t start looking around for other sources of protein 🙂
        I wonder if in fact the loss of habitat to agriculture and city, coupled with the saturation of all niches with synthetic chemicals, standard and nano, isn’t contributing more to the phenomenon than is shown in the article. Rambling thoughts, I know, but I’m not convinced…

        • Bill 2.1.1.1

          I admit that I’m struggling to imagine an adaptation that might ameliorate malnutrition.

          There was a throw-away line by Carla Tanson (fashion designer) the other week commenting that wool quality had dropped since the 70s. It’s stuck in my mind because I wondered if it was possibly an early effect of poor nutrition. I mean, there’s only so much a sheep can eat in a day, and if all their food is denuded…

          I’d be curious to know a bit about current levels of supplementary feed for the likes of beef cattle compared to the past, and how it measures up against meat quality. (ie, is more feeding out required now to produce the same quality and quantity of meat as say 30 or 40 years ago?) Probably far too many contributory factors and variations to arrive at any firm conclusions. But still…

          • weka 2.1.1.1.1

            If species couldn’t adapt to changes in nutrition availability they wouldn’t have survived. I don’t know if the timeframe is adequate, although it’s a given that species are already adapting to CC in various ways.

            Things that might affect sheep and thus wool would be (in no particular order) – CC, degradation of soil over time (that’s new), increases in artificial fertiliser use, changes in pharmaceutical use, different breeding, changes to pasture, changes to stocking rates… I’m sure there are others. Trying to look at one and not the others leads to less effective solutions.

            • Robert Guyton 2.1.1.1.1.1

              Modern pasture grasses are bred to produce much higher sugar levels than past varieties. Modern pastures are practically monocultures, where in the past, there was a mix of species. Our poor beasts live for a briefer time than previously, in part because of these things. If the sugaring-up described in the article is real, all herbivores, including insects, perhaps, though they aren’t mammals and have different needs, could suffer a similar fate. Could we, should we be (desperately) breeding species of plants that have lower sugar levels, despite higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere? A race against time!

            • Bill 2.1.1.1.1.2

              If species couldn’t adapt to changes in nutrition availability they wouldn’t have survived.

              Yup. And if you read the post and the supporting literature through the links, you’ll read more than enough by way of rigorous study and observation supporting that scenario – ie, increasing rates of non-survival.

              There’s nothing at all wrong with teasing things apart btw. It’s called focus and has nothing to with ‘discounting’ or ‘ignoring’ other dynamics or contributory factors around any given problem.

              It’s especially worthwhile if some common determining factor is suspected to be at play. And sure, given the nature of the world and things, it’s not always possible to isolate and study a single dynamic or factor. But that’s why Ziska’s work on goldenrod pollen is, I’d say, quite exceptional and important.

              And it dovetails (as per the linked Politico piece) with other study and research done on accelerated growth rates, the impact that has on nutrient levels (ie, light and CO2 concentrations) and the knock on effects for other components of a food chain/web.

              • weka

                I’ll just state that I don’t disagree with you on the significance of insect decline or probably even cause. I just think that ag is a huge issue along side CC in this and can’t be separated out. Yes, we can tease out different factors to look at them as well.

                There’s some work being done on increasing nutrient in food density via regenag (using that term broadly, Robert will hate it but he can come up with a better cover phrase). Basically work with nature and use natural cycles increases nutritional value.

                That doesn’t mean it overrides the CC effect, nor that we keep using FFs, it means when/as we stop the FF we have tools for restoring some of the damage. That restoration is critical for both lessening the impact of CC/preventing worsening, and for adaptation around what is already locked in. I don’t see why it can’t used in wider nature not just food crops.

                Handily, those processes and the underlying thinking are also where the solutions to CC lie as well.

                • Bill

                  I’d be interested to know if whatever work you’re referring to has factored in the effect of elevated CO2 levels. (Given the date of the Ziska study, the history behind such research and the fact the results seem to have caught the scientific community unawares, I’d have my doubts.)

                  And it’s important, because the healthiest seed stock could be planted in healthiest soil, watered to perfection or whatever, and the effects of elevated CO2 levels on the process of photosynthesis (at least for C3 plants – ie, 85% of all plants) means the resultant plant/crop will have diminished nutrient levels because of inhibited uptake of nitrogen as well as the effects of dilution.

        • adam 2.1.1.2

          Robert the fastest mutating life form on the the Planet bacteria, took how long to adapt to trees? Insects are substantially slower at adaptation, plus it’s only been 50 years.

          We are at the stop or die place.

          Ware are not going to stop, so we are going to die.

          The Plant will be fine by the way. Just the greater extinction of many life forms – including us.

          • weka 2.1.1.2.1

            Not sure why people think the planet will be fine when the planet is made up in part of life forms.

            I’m pretty sure that insects will already be adapting to CC. It’s more whether any species or life form can adapt in the given time for the specific issue.

            This is why I think looking at CC and excluding agriculture doesn’t make sense. We need to do both to give the optimal chance for life.

            I agree we have to stop the FF now though.

          • Robert Guyton 2.1.1.2.2

            I believe the planet won’t be “fine” and like any living system, ails when members of its community die off: an ocean with only two species if fish swimming in it, isn’t “fine”, it’s buggered and knows it. Any intelligence a complex natural system might have would surely be in crisis mode as it’s components disappear. I reckon the planet is in crisis mode now and isn’t uncaring, unresponsive, unaware of its dire state. I believe humans are one of those organisms the planet doesn’t want to lose. I reckon we should apply all of our energies to retaining every living thing, or at least, those that remain, for the planet’s sake (I don’t separate “planet” from any individual organism, including humans. The planet is the whole living, writhing mass of life, not a wet rock spinning through space upon which things live. 🙂

            • weka 2.1.1.2.2.1

              thank-you.

            • Bill 2.1.1.2.2.2

              Gaia or Medea? Hmm.

            • marty mars 2.1.1.2.2.3

              + 1

              Yep Papatūānuku is our mother – we are born from her, love, live and die with her. There is never a seperation apart from the contrived, arrogant and silly mental one some people construct.

              • Robert Guyton

                Yes, Marty – sadly though, we are caught in a thinking-trap that began long ago and is proving difficult to extricate ourselves from; when you develop a brain like the one we humans lug around inside of our fragile and over-sized skulls, it’ll come up with ideas that can destroy the lugee. We’re facing the most critical test a sentient being can face right now; change fundamentally or die. I reckon we’ll do it but I recognise that there’s no guarantee we will; that and tidying-up the mess we’ve already created won’t be easy, but hey, whatayagunnado?

      • weka 2.1.2

        I wasn’t suggesting doing one and not the other. In fact I specifically said both need to be done and for specific reasons.

        However since you put it that way, ban fossil fuels today, and a myriad of other serious as fuck problems will continue, for the reasons stated. People by and large have a world view that engenders ecological collapse. Even in the best case scenario with CC, we will still need to change our other practices in addition to FF use, for both mitigation and adaptation reasons.

        I totally don’t underestimate the potential of the death cult to continue doing seriously fucked up things even if they no longer have access to FF. And a big drop in FF use won’t stop industrial agriculture although it may slow its ability to damage. Ploughing for instance is a pre-industrial revolution technique. It worked in the past because of the smaller scale (see, population again), and because the soils were relatively intact, and because we didn’t have CC.

        But now we have disturbed soils on a much larger scale, we’re at Peak Soil, and CC demands we stop ploughing because it damages soil and releases carbon and prevents sequestration. None of that is dependent upon FF.

        Again, we need to address both issues at the same time because they are part of the same problem.

        “And population has got nothing whatsoever to do with any target for less than 2 degrees C of warming.”

        It does have a lot to do with the carrying capacity to of nature though. If the insect population has dropped as much as claimed then we will need every tool available to prevent the worst case scenarios, and just banning FF won’t be enough. We need to actively work with nature, not treat it as a machine.

        • Robert Guyton 2.1.2.1

          Thornbury, Southland is hosting this years national ploughing competitions, celebrating the men and machines that have enabled farming in New Zealand since way back when – hooray!

        • Bill 2.1.2.2

          Other practices would change or adapt (or vanish) by way of necessity if we stopped sparking fossil and took the further absolutely necessary step of using only carbon free energy – unless I’m completely over-looking some practice that has a huge planetary impact that could possibly continue regardless of access to energy…

          Note. I’m not saying let everything else be. Ban the nicotinoids today and shift whatever agriculture and industrial practice as can be shifted. But in a market economy that’s spewing very twisted incentives, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for worthwhile levels of change. Those changes come when the perverse incentives of the market are gone. And the market’s gone as soon as we dump fossil.

  3. McFlock 3

    Interesting point about plant sugars and CO2. Hadn’t seen that before.

  4. Patricia Bremner 4

    We need to change to no fossil fuels, sadly that isn’t happening anytime soon.

    We fly we drive we burn fuel. Bill it feels hopeless.

    Have they checked whether it is reversible?

  5. Richard Christie 6

    we can sensibly suggest that the nutritional content of plants has dropped by about 30% since the beginning of the industrial revolution (ie, since 1840 or thereabouts).

    How do you justify the 30% figure. “Sensibly suggest” doesn’t amount to an explanation.

    Serious and genuine question.

    • Bill 6.1

      The 30% figure comes from this article on Ziska’s work (Ziska’s work being the US Dept of Agriculture study linked to in the post).

      They found that the protein content of goldenrod pollen has declined by a third since the industrial revolution—and the change closely tracks with the rise in CO2.

      And since all plants (all C3 plants if you want to be persnickety) have exhibited similar drop in protein or nutrition levels over the past 40 years or so, and since all show similar drops in in relation to one another in field trials that subject crops to elevated CO2 levels….

      The “sensibly suggest” is an extrapolation, a joining of the dots if you will – not an explanation.

      • Richard Christie 6.1.1

        Thanks, the Politico article is a good read. All the same I remain wary of untested extrapolations. This may change.

        Thanks for bringing this topic to my attention.

  6. Tony Veitch (not etc) 7

    Bill, totally agree – the inherent stupidity of the human race will doom us all to extinction – it’s just a question of ‘how soon’!

    As an example, how about this in today’s Press – grazing dairy cows in the Red Zone of Christchurch!

    As if we haven’t got enough dairy cows!

    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/98131105/cow-fodder-highest-and-best-use-of-cleared-suburban-christchurch-land

  7. In Vino 8

    I know I am not a scientist, but the decline in insect numbers I have noticed in my region I had linked with something completely different – the arrival of two new insect species: the Asian Paper Wasp, and the South African Praying Mantis.

    Neither of these two particular species are declining in numbers around here. The wasps are already around in high numbers, and there are plenty of fresh mantis egg-cases about to hatch out after a cracker season for them late last summer. I suspect that these two species have greatly reduced the numbers of all other insects.

    They are voracious. The wasps land in long grass, climb down into the undergrowth, and not emerge for ages unless they have had a quick find and kill. They take whatever form they can track down of whatever species. I have seen a queen paper wasp chase down, attack and decapitate an almost-grown male mantis in medium grass.

    Monarch Butterflies and caterpillars used to be protected from earlier predators here because, as they eat milkweed, they were poisonous to them. Unfortunately, this poison does not protect them from the new predators: both paper wasps and SA mantids will happily chop up and consume both caterpillars and butterflies straight off the swan plant.

    At about the time these new predators arrived we were warned of impending insect plagues because of warmer winters. Instead we got big numbers of the new predators, and the numbers of all butterflies (especially the pesky white one), moths, beetles, etc seemed to shrink.

    Throw in the Varoa mite wiping out all wild beehives, and it seems to me that there is much more at play here than the just the rise of CO2 levels.
    In areas where the German wasp is a pest, it is still very much present, being safe while growing in colonies, protected from paper wasps and mantids .

    I am not trying to deny climate change – just saying that I had thought that the fall in insect numbers was explained by newly-arrived predatory insects.

    If the predatory insects themselves were also in decline I would then give great credence to CO2 levels affecting NZ. But the predators are thriving and healthy.

    • greywarshark 8.1

      Ditto in Nelson. Praying mantis cases absent or raided – SA white ones all over the place. Start friends of the blue ear anyone?

    • Robert Guyton 8.2

      The predators will do well, dining on the weakened herbivores, for a while, anyway; they’re getting their protein 2nd-hand and in any case, they’ll be bolder and more visible as they invade spaces humans frequent. We’re still free of many insect predators down South and that’s one of the reasons for choosing to live here – my apples don’t even get codlin moth, nor do my bees suffer varroa, we don’t have ant issues, nor South African mantis.
      Yet.

  8. Sparky 9

    An excellent article. Various herbicides have been linked to the decline in insect numbers too.

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/monarch-butterflies-under-threat-from-rising-herbicide-use/

    China is making moves to transition to electric cars across the country and moving from coal to nuclear (yes I know that’s not ideal but its still an improvement). All in an effort to improve their environment and cut down on emissions.

    Meanwhile here in Luddite NZ we are doing jack shit aside from talking about signing sketchy “so called” trade deals (TPP11 and others) that “chill” environmental policy by letting big business govt. Yay…..

  9. spikeyboy 10

    Very interesting article and link to Loladze s research. I’m planting a lot of old American Indian corns at the moment because of the high protein levels in them. You can start by getting some from Koanga website and then just save some seed. These are C4 plants which Loladze says hasnt yet been studied though the assumption is that they will be affected the same. Heres hoping not. Of course the only real fix is to stop burning fossil fuels but since thats unlikely possible ways of survival are also of interest.

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