Silent killers of the biosphere revealed

I ran this article in the Irish Examiner in early October to mark and honour the 60th anniversary of the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson, the book that was arguably the foundation event for the modern environmental movement. Vilified and condemned by vested interests in her lifetime, Carson’s legacy of courageous, rigorous reporting endures.

IT IS A LITTLE known but alarming fact that every year, some 44 per cent of farmers and farm workers worldwide experience poisoning by pesticides. That means 385 million people are affected, 11,000 of whom die annually, while tens of millions live with the long term health impacts of this exposure.

“Acute pesticide poisoning is an ongoing major global public health challenge”,  according to a scientific study published in December 2020. Among its recommendations was the phasing out of “highly hazardous” pesticides.

Scientists at University College Cork are currently seeking volunteers from the farming community for a study into a possible link between exposure to pesticides and Parkinson’s disease.

In laboratory tests, rodents exposed to these chemicals developed the symptoms of Parkinson’s, while research in France has linked high incidences of the disease with agricultural fungicides. Apart from farmers, people living in rural areas can be at risk of air-borne agricultural pesticides, or contaminated well water.

In Ireland, typically around 3,000 tonnes of pesticides are used annually, the vast majority for agriculture and by local authorities, while 450 tonnes are sold in a completely unregulated way to the public via garden centres and even supermarkets.

Globally, some three million tonnes of often highly toxic pesticides are released into the environment every year, with many of these known as “forever chemicals” that remain harmful for years, even decades.

Sixty years ago this week saw the publication of one of the most important books of the 20th century, ‘Silent Spring’ by US biologist and science writer, Rachel Carson. She described pesticides as the “elixirs of death” and argued they should instead be labelled as “biocides” as they constitute a deadly and indiscriminate assault on life itself.

Her book provoked a firestorm of controversy. Carson was denounced by the agri-chemical industry as a communist, a fanatic and, most memorably, as a “hysterical spinster”.

While threatened with multiple lawsuits by chemical firms, none made it to court. Carson’s meticulous research withstood hostile scrutiny and her book is now regarded as a seminal event in the evolution of the modern environmental movement.

Then US president John F. Kennedy set up a scientific panel to investigate the claims in ‘Silent Spring’, which focused in particular on the devastating impacts of DDT on wildlife, especially birds.

The panel’s report in 1963 vindicated her findings. By 1972, DDT had been banned in the US by the newly created Environmental Protection Agency. Carson’s writings had “altered the course of history”, in the words of one US senator.

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world”, Carson warned. She battled to complete ‘Silent Spring’ while suffering from cancer from which she died less than two years after its publication.

Despite her efforts, over the intervening six decades, a tidal wave of ever more toxic chemicals have been unleashed by an industry that now sells over €230 billion in agri-chemicals every year.

Consider the insecticide imidacloprid, which is 7,000 times more toxic than the now-banned DDT. A single teaspoon of imidacloprid contains enough poison to kill one billion honeybees, were they directly exposed.

While overall volumes of pesticide usage have declined in recent decades, their increasing potency and toxicity has offset these reductions. It is no coincidence that around a quarter of the entire global insect population has disappeared since 1990.

A recent study in Germany identified a calamitous 75 per cent drop in the number of flying insects in just a 25-year period. “We are witnessing the largest extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods”, according to the authors of a major paper published in 2019.

To put that in context, the end-Permian event, known as the Great Dying, saw more than 90 per cent of all life on Earth wiped out 252 million years ago.

UK insect expert Prof Dave Goulson titled his 2021 book ‘Silent Earth’ in tribute to Carson, who he said “would weep to see how much worse it has become” since her clarion call in 1962. “Some of the new pesticides are thousands of times more toxic to insect than any that existed in Carson’s day”, he wrote.

The recently published ‘State of the World’s Birds’ report by BirdLife International presented a profoundly grim assessment, with 49 per cent of all bird species in decline and one in eight facing extinction. The expansion and intensification of agriculture globally is the leading cause of decline.

European farmland birds have been particularly hard hit, with 57 per cent disappearing as a result of mechanisation, chemicals and land clearance for crop production. In Ireland, the picture is equally bleak, with 63 per cent of our bird populations in decline and one in four seriously threatened.

Farmland species such as the curlew, lapwing, snipe, kestrel and skylark have been most impacted by changes in Irish farming practices. Despite this, no new funding was made available in the recent budget for wildlife conservation.

The BirdLife report also noted the growing impact of wildfires and droughts on bird populations, as a result of global warming, with these pressures set to ratchet up as global temperatures continue to increase.

A recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), warned that the ongoing human assault on the biosphere means “we are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”.

While modern agriculture is almost totally dependent on chemicals to control pests, new research is calling this rationale into question. A study on US soybean crops in 2019 found that the use of neonicotinoid pesticides delivered “negligible” benefits compared with their cost.

The widespread use of chemical pesticides also wipes out pollinators as well as predatory insects such as ladybugs who might otherwise help control the crop-eating “pests” like aphids. As in Carson’s day, the agri-chemical giants wield huge influence over both politicians and farmers, and they work hard to water down regulations that might in any way impact their business model.

Nature-friendly organic agriculture, which avoids all pesticides and chemical fertilizers, is rapidly growing in popularity, with new EU targets of a quarter of all land farmed organically by 2030. However, barely 1.7 per cent of Irish land is organic, the second lowest in the EU27.

The EU’s ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy aims for a legally binding 50 per cent reduction in pesticide usage this decade, in a bid to avert biodiversity collapse, but is being strongly resisted by agri-chemical interests.

The human race, Carson reminded us, “is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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One Response to Silent killers of the biosphere revealed

  1. Hi John,
    Great stuff as usual. I’m writing a book about the environmental impact of digital technologies. I’m tracing the journeys of a number of materials, such as aluminium. I’ve being doing quite a bit of research on Aughinish Alumina in Limerick. There were big impacts on the local environment and farming community.

    However, I want to put things into context and examine industrialized agriculture in Ireland, as well as get some broader perspectives. Would you be interested in having a chat at some stage?

    Keep up the great work


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