David's blog posts for 2014

Neonics, crop losses, and ‘green activists’ – a plea for a little more accuracy in the media

Dec

20

I warn you now: this blog won’t be of much interest unless you’ve been following the neonic debate closely. It is in response to an opinion piece in the Telegraph by Christopher Booker (6 December 2014) and several recent blogs in a similar vein.

The gist of the article by Booker is that a group of dodgy scientists and green activists working for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) got together in 2010 and plotted to get neonics banned. They are said to have received £350,000 of EU money via the IUCN to fund this work, which ultimately resulted in the current moratorium on neonics. This moratorium has, according to Booker, “done huge damage to agriculture all over Europe”. He cites a recent EU report as saying that the cost to UK farmers alone already stands at £640 million. Booker goes on to say that there is no good evidence that neonics harm bees. He states that Defra’s own field trials had shown no damage to bees, whereas the IUCN group relied only on highly artificial laboratory experiments to reach their conclusions. He finishes with the bold claim that Owen Paterson, who fought against the moratorium and cited the Defra field trial in support of his position, was “easily the best-informed and most effective Defra secretary of state we’ve ever had”.

This all sounds like a great tale of dodgy doings, but let’s look at the actual facts for a minute. There is a group of scientists, linked to IUCN, who published a series of peer-reviewed scientific review papers on the impacts of neonics on the environment in summer 2014. These papers are all available for anyone to read at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-014-3470-y. They are simply a review of the existing evidence – if you are really interested, read them yourself, and you can decide whether they are any good. I was asked to join this group in summer 2012, with a view to helping to write these papers, and it seemed like a good idea – the group contains many well-respected scientists from all over the world, bringing together diverse expertise. Scientists commonly come together in this way to write lengthy reviews of important topics. It is wildly inaccurate to say, as Booker does, that we relied “only on highly artificial laboratory experiments” – our reviews examined and describe hundreds of studies, many of them conducted in the field. The Defra field trial to which Booker attaches such weight was a total cock-up since all the ‘control’ bees became exposed to pesticides, so it was never published.      

You might wonder whether I received a share of the £350,000 for my contribution. So far as I know, there never was £350,000. I received nothing – in fact on the one occasion when I attended a meeting of this group I had to pay my own travel expenses. The whole thing was done on a shoestring, as meetings of scientists usually are. I did get a free cup of coffee. 

So what about the central claim that this group somehow engineered the neonic ban? The ban was proposed in January 2013, as a direct result of the European Food Standards Agency publishing three reports on neonics which concluded that they posed an “unacceptable risk” to bees. This was voted through in April 2013, and began in December 2013. Our reviews were not published until the summer of 2014, 16 months AFTER the ban was agreed in the European Parliament. So unless members of the European Parliament are able to see into the future, it is hard to see how their decision could have been influenced in any way by a group that had not at the time published anything whatsoever.

Finally, what about the “huge damage” that the neonic ban has done, and this figure of £640 million in crop losses in the UK alone?  I follow this topic closely, but have not heard of any such report. £640 million would represent the loss of about 12% of Britain’s entire agricultural output (including arable, dairy, horticulture etc.). Since the moratorium really only applies to oilseed rape, this would require the entire crop to have been wiped out (the total annual value of this crop varies between about £400 million and £700 million). However, the first sowing of oilseed rape without neonics in the UK was august 2014. About 1.5% was lost to flea beetle, according to the Home Grown Cereal Authority. Yes, that is correct - so 98.5% of the crop is fine. The crop won’t be harvest until summer 2015, so we have no way of knowing what the yield will be, or what losses, if there are any, might be due to the absence of neonics. So where on earth does this figure come from? Perhaps Booker also possesses the gift of foresight, and has foreseen a biblical plague of locusts in the spring?

Given all these wild inaccuracies, the claim that climate-sceptic Owen Patterson was “easily the best-informed and most effective Defra secretary of state we’ve ever had” starts to seem quite reasonable by comparison. Why do newspapers publish such twaddle?

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PS To learn more about the neonicotinoid story, try reading chapter 13 of my new book, “A Buzz in the Meadow”


Are crops being devastated without neonicotinoid protection?

Oct

10

Response to article by Matt Ridley in the Times, 6 October. Note that the Times refused to publish a (shorter) response that I sent to them:


To: letters@thetimes.co.uk

 

Dear Sir,

 

On 6 October, the Times published an opinion piece by Matt Ridley on the impacts of the neonicotinoid moratorium on farming. These insecticides are the subject of a partial 2 year ban introduced by the EU because of the perceived risk they pose to bees. Ridley asserts that oilseed rape crops are now being devastated because they are not being protected by these insecticides, claiming that in some regions up to 50% of the crop has been lost. He argues that there is “literally no good science linking neonics to bee deaths in fields” and that the moratorium only came about because “green lobby groups… have privileged and direct access to... European officials”. He goes on to claim that there is no evidence that bees are declining, and that they will be worse off if there is less oilseed rape for them to feed on as a result of the moratorium. He even sneaks in a quick go at badgers, suggesting that they may be the main problem that bumblebees face. In short, he says the moratorium is a typical barmy bit of EU legislation that is crippling farming for no good reason, no better than the apocryphal EU restrictions on the shape of bananas.

 

I’m one of the scientists who have been conducting this “no good” science, so you might not be surprised to hear that I have a rather different view of the situation. The EU decision was taken only after a team of scientists at the European Food Standard’s Agency had spent 6 months reviewing all the scientific evidence. They concluded that neonics pose an “unacceptable risk” to bees, and hence a majority of EU counties voted for the moratorium. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, came to the same conclusion, and urged our government to support the ban. The US Fish & Wildlife Service also concurred, and have banned use of all neonics on land they administer. Most recently, a team of 30 scientists, of which I was one, reviewed 800 papers on this topic and in a series of 8 articles published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, concluded that “The combination of prophylactic use, persistence, mobility, systemic properties and chronic toxicity [of neonicotinoids] is predicted to result in substantial impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning”.

 

These neurotoxins persist in soils for years, and they are now known to be found in hedgerow plants, streams and ponds. One teaspoon is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1.25 billion honeybees (it would kill half of them, and leave the others feeling very unwell).  But they do not just pose a threat to bees; any insect living on farmland or in streams that flow from farmland, and any organisms that depend on insects for food (e.g. many birds and fish) are likely to be affected.

 

The backdrop to all this is that over the last 60 years arable farming has become highly dependent on a blizzard of chemical inputs. Many crops are treated with twenty or more pesticides each year, and grown in vast monocultures with minimal use of rotations and negligible attention paid to encouraging natural enemies that can help to control pests.

There is little space left for nature. As a result, European wildlife populations are collapsing. RSPB’s 2013 “State of Nature” report summarizes the state of play, and it is bleak reading – most farmland wildlife groups for which we have data are overwhelmingly in decline. According to British Trust for Ornithology data, 44 million breeding birds vanished from the British countryside in the last decades of the 20th century.  

 

Conservation organizations are fighting a losing battle. To claim that they have “privileged” access to politicians is bizarre; never have green politics been so low on the agenda. It seems rather more plausible that those who profit from promoting intensive farming, particularly the agrochemical industry, are the ones with access to regulators and policy makers. Sales of neonics alone are worth $3billion pa, so that industry can afford to employ armies of lobbyists. Many EU countries have folded under pressure from industry and allowed farmers derogations to use neonics during the ban. Following the recent stories of oilseed rape losses in the UK, Defra have allowed farmers to spray different types of neonics onto their crops, while others have resorted to sprayed their rape seedlings up to 5 times with pyrethroid insecticides already this autumn, at the same time complaining that pyrethroids don’t work because the pests are resistant (so why use them?). In these circumstances the moratorium is worse than useless, but surely there is a better, more sustainable way forwards? We need to find ways to grow crops without damaging the environment. If rape cannot be grown in some areas without blitzing it with neurotoxins, then perhaps farmers should consider growing something else entirely? If they tried to wean themselves off their chemical dependency, introduced more diverse crop rotations, left small areas for wildlife, and tried to encourage natural enemies of their pests, they might find that their problems got better.

 

What of Ridley’s claim that oilseed rape crops are being wiped out because they are no longer protected by neonicotinoids? He is not the first to say this. In May, the NFU Vice President Guy Smith claimed on Farming Today that 70% of the Swedish spring oilseed rape crop had been wiped out by pests following the introduction of the neonic moratorium. This was wildly incorrect – when eventually official figures emerged, the yield was down just 5%. Two days ago Defra revealed official figures on the extent of the damage in the UK – 1.35% of the crop has been lost (http://www.hgca.com/press/2014/october/08/csfb-crop-losses-estimated-at-27-in-hgca-funded-%E2%80%98snapshot-assessment%E2%80%99.aspx). Note that some crops are lost every year, with or without neonics. So why would a senior politician (Matt Ridley is a tory Lord and brother-in-law to Owen Paterson) and VP of the NFU want to grossly exaggerate the damage, and hence by implication suggest that farmers cannot grow crops without neonics? This is not in the farmer’s best interests, or that of the environment, or that of consumers. One might be forgiven for wondering if they weren’t actually working for the agrochemical industry.

 

Finally, will bees suffer if farmers grow less oilseed rape because of the moratorium, as Ridley asserts? I doubt it. Bees need a steady supply of food through the year, not a four week spring glut followed by famine because there are few wildflowers. In any case, if you were offered a feast of food laced with a neurotoxin, or a more modest meal of unpoisoned food, which would you opt for? In a sense, that is the choice that we all face right now.

 

Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He is author of the bestselling A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow, the latter describing the neonicotinoid controversy.

 

Launch of the Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) on the environmental impacts of systemic pesticides

Jun

27

On Tuesday this week I was in Brussels, for a press conference to launch a major series of scientific publications on the impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides on the environment. On the same day, press conferences were also held in Manila, Tokyo and Ottawa. The publications are the culmination of 5 years work involving more than 50 scientists from 4 continents, and together we reviewed evidence from >800 scientific papers. Our findings are being published as 7 papers in a special issue of the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research. All have been accepted for publication following full, independent, scientific peer-review. The first of the seven is online now at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-014-3180-5; this deals with impacts on vertebrates. The rest of the papers will appear soon as the journal finishes processing them for publication.

The conclusions of our work, in brief, are that these systemic pesticides are accumulating in soils and polluting waterways and natural vegetation across the world, leading to widespread impacts on wildlife inhabiting farmland and aquatic habitats. There is also growing evidence that much of their use is unnecessary and ineffective. But you can read all about this over the coming months as the papers come out: all of them are to be open access.

On Monday, the day before the press conference and before anyone could have seen the full set of documents, I received a rebuttal of our work from Croplife, an organisation that represents the agrochemical industry. It was quite clear that they hadn’t read any of it. Their criticisms were: that the work was selective in what it reviewed (we looked at 800 papers, everything that we could find); that we looked only at lab studies (a bizarre claim, and completely untrue); that we ignored the economic importance of neonicotinoids and didn’t consider how farmers would cope without them (there is a whole paper in the WIA just on this topic).

We have also been criticised because not all of our papers are yet available. Had this been a single report, just placed on the internet without scientific review, we could easily have made it all available. This is what industry usually does. But the scientific review and editing process is slow and not all of the papers were quite ready. On the plus side, they have the huge advantage that they have all passed independent scrutiny.  

On Wednesday, Syngenta launched a request to the UK government for an exemption to the European moratorium. They want to treat 186,000 hectares of oilseed rape woth a neonicotinoid – 30% of the UK crop – because they say that otherwise there is a “danger to production”. There appears to be no scientific evidence to back up this claim. Indeed, just a week ago on 18 June an industry spokesman appeared before the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee and was asked to provide a single scientific study showing that neonicotinoid seed dressings increased yield of any arable crop. Embarrassingly, he could not. They’ve been selling neonics for 20 years, but can provide no evidence that they work!? How do they differ from the quack doctors of days gone by, who peddled cure-alls on street corners with their slick patter?

One can read Syngenta’s request another way – they seem to be conceding that 70% of the UK’s oilseed rape doesn’t need treating with neonics. Why then was 100% treated before the moratorium?

This simply appears to be a ploy by industry to bypass the EU moratorium, which was based on sound scientific evidence, and recommended by the European Food Standards Agency. If you’d like to sign a petition against their request, go to: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/a-ban-is-a-ban

USA finally considering action over neonicotinoids, spurred on by doubts as to whether they actually work

Jun

02

Two US Congressmen have launched a bill to suspend uses of neonicotinoid insecticides in the US, following the lead of the European Union. Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Earl Bluemenauer or Oregon introduced the “Saving America’s Pollinators Act”. They were prompted by widespread honeybee colony losses and a major bumblebee kill in Oregon where 50,000 dead bumblebees were found beneath two lime trees as a result of their being sprayed with neonicotinoids for ornamental reasons (note that lime trees often have a few dead bumblebees under them for separate reasons that have never been fully explained). I was recently invited over to speak in Capitol Hill in support of this bill.   

The debate over neonicotinoids and bees rolls on and on, with new studies emerging every day. It seems to me that the evidence on bumblebees is clear and convincing - realistic doses are very likely to be doing harm to wild colonies – but the evidence for honeybees remains muddier. However, most of the studies finding no impact on honeybees have been funded by or performed by the industry that manufactures the chemicals, so murky waters are to be expected. 

My visit coincided with the launch of a fascinating review of the economic value of neonicotinoids, produced by the Centre for Food Safety, a US-based non-profit organisation. They review 19 studies that have evaluated how much neonicotinoid seed dressings (the usual way of using these chemicals) increase yield of a range of crops, including wheat, corn, soya beans, and oilseed rape. The findings are astonishing – in every case, the studies either found no benefit whatsoever, or weak and inconsistent benefits unlikely to offset the cost of the pesticide. As Dr Christian Krupke (a leading researcher on this topic at Purdue University) said to me, “There may be places in the US where the pests are so bad that farmers need neonicotinoid seed dressings, but we can’t find them”.

In short, the most widely used pesticides in the world - prophylactically applied to arable crops across the globe - appear to be ineffective, and to have been widely miss-sold. It reminds me a little of the Payment Protection Insurance scandal – farmers are advised to use seed dressings as an insurance against something which, it seems, almost never happens.

Remarkably, no similar studies seem to have ever been performed in the UK or elsewhere in Europe to evaluate how much, if at all, neonic seed dressings increase yield here. It would be easy to do – experimental plots of crops that are treated exactly the same, except for the presence or absence of the seed dressing. How did these chemicals come to be so widely used without the manufacturers demonstrating clearly that they worked? If they did perform such studies, why can nobody find them? Sceptics such as I might also point to Italy, where neonics were banned on corn some years ago and where yields have remained stable and corn farming profitable.   

For me, this turns the whole bee debate on its head. If neonic seed dressings were essential to grow crops, one might have to accept a risk of harm to bees. But it seems that they are not.

In Europe, a decision will need to be made in the next year or so as to whether the current EU moratorium is extended or allowed to lapse. This new evidence will hopefully help to prevent the latter.

Prof Dave Goulson, University of Sussex.

[An abbreviated version of this Blog is published in the newsletter of the BBKA, June 2014]

Does anyone remember Rachel Carson? More on pesticides and bees...

Jan

15

As part of a project to study impacts of pesticides on bumblebees, we have recently been surveying what chemicals the local farmers in East Sussex use each year. Perhaps I was naive, but I found the figures to be astonishing. Below, I’ve pasted a list of the chemicals applied to two fairly typical fields, one with winter oilseed rape, one with winter wheat, in a single growing season (2012/13). For both crops, it is a very long list.

I should stress that these are perfectly normal farms; not especially intensive, situated on the edge of the South Downs, an area of gentle hills, hedgerows and wooded valleys. Beautiful, rural England; Constable would have liked it here. But let’s look at it from a bee’s perspective, focussing on the oilseed rape, since this is a crop they will feed on when it flowers:

Firstly, the crop is sown in late summer with a seed dressing containing the insecticide thiamethoxam. This is a systemic neonicotinoid, with exceedingly high toxicity to bees. We know it is taken up by the plant, and that detectable levels will be in the nectar and pollen gathered by bees in the following spring. In November, despite the supposed protection of the neonicotinoid, the crop is sprayed with another insecticide, the charmingly named Gandalf. What harm could the wise old wizard possibly do? Gandalf contains beta-cyfluthrin, a pyrethroid. Pyrethroids are highly toxic to bees and other insects, but there should be no bees about in November so that is probably OK. The following May, when it is flowering, the crop is sprayed with another pyrethroid,  alpha-cypermethrin. Less than three weeks later, the crop is blitzed with three more pyrethroids, all mixed together, a real belt-and-braces approach. Why use one when three will do? The crop is still flowering at this point (it was a late year), and would be covered in foraging bumblebees and other pollinators.

In between, the crop is also treated with a barrage of herbicides, fungicides, molluscicides and fertilizers – 22 different chemicals in total. Most of these may have little toxicity to bees in themselves, but some, such as a group of fungicides (the DMI fungicides), are known to act synergistically with both neonicotinoids and pyrethroids, making the insecticides much more toxic to bees. On the final application date, when the crop is flowering, one of these fungicides (prothioconazole) is added to the tank mix with the three pyrethroids. Any bee feeding will be simultaneously exposed to the three pyrethroids, the thiamethoxam in the nectar and pollen, and a fungicide that makes these insecticides more toxic.     

We don’t know what impact all of this really has on them. The safety tests generally expose test insects to just one chemical at a time, usually for just 2 days, but in reality they are chronically exposed to multiple pesticides throughout their lives. The fact that we still have bees in farmland suggests that they must be pretty tough. More broadly, we don’t know what impacts all of this has on other pollinators, or wildlife in general. Industry would tell us that all is well. They would also tell us (and the farmers that they advise) that all of these applications are vitally important parts of crop production, and that without them food production would collapse. I have my doubts. Is this really how we want to see the countryside managed? Do we really want to eat food produced this way?

I think I might head home early and finish digging over my veggie plot. At least I can control what goes into that.  

[PS If you find this blog of interest, please share it with your friends using the buttons below right] 

Winter Oilseed Rape

Date

Type of compound

Brand name

Active ingredients

Application method

25/08/2012

 

Insecticide and fungicide

Cruiser

280 g/l thiamethoxam, 8 g/l fludioxonil and 32.3 g/l metalaxyl-M

Seed dressing

Herbicide

Shadow

Quinmerac, Dimethenamid-p, Metazachlor

Spray

Herbicide

Dictate

480g/litre bentazone as sodium salt in the form of soluble concentrate

Spray

Fungicide

Fiddle

Clomazone

Spray

08/09/2012

Molluscicide

Tds Major

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

12/09/2012

Herbicide

Shadow

Quinmerac, Dimethenamid-p, Metazachlor

Spray

10/10/2012

Fungicide

Crawler

Carbetamide

Slug pelleter

05/11/2012

Fungicide

Genie 25

Flusilazole

Spray

Insecticide

Gandalf

Beta-cyfluthrin

Spray

16/02/2013

Fertiliser

Double Top

Ammonium Sulphate and Ammonium Nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

Fungicide

Crawler

Carbetamide

Slug pelleter

Herbicide

Pilot Ultra

Quizalofop-P-ethyl

Spray

10/04/2013

Fertiliser

Nitram

Ammonium nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

22/04/2013

Fertiliser

Nitram

Ammonium nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

17/05/2013

Fungicide

Filan

Boscalid

Spray

Fungicide

Flanker

Picoxystrobin

Spray

Insecticide

Alert

Alpha-cypermethrin

Spray

05/06/2013

Fungicide

Propulse

Fluopyram, Prothioconazole

Spray

Insecticide

Hallmark Zeon

100 g/l lambda-cyhalothrin and 1,2-benzisothiazolin-3-one

Spray

Insecticide

Gandalf

Beta-cyfluthrin

Spray

Insecticide

Mavrik

Tau-fluvalinate

Spray

  

Winter wheat

20/09/2012

Insecticide and fungicide

Redigo Deter

50 g/L (4.3% w/w) prothioconazole and 250 g/L (21.4% w/w) clothianidin

Seed treatment

28/09/2012

Molluscicide

Tds Major

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

26/10/2012

Molluscicide

Osarex W

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

02/11/2012

Molluscicide

Tds Major

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

06/11/2012

Herbicide

Dictate

480g/litre bentazone as sodium salt in the form of soluble concentrate

Spray

Herbicide

Fidox

Prosulfocarb

Spray

Herbicide

Liberator

Flufenacet, Diflufenican

Spray

Insecticide

Gandalf

Beta-cyfluthrin

Spray

10/01/2013

Molluscicide

Tds Major

Metaldehyde

Slug pelleter

06/03/2013

Fertiliser

Sulphur Gold

Amonium sulphate-nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

08/04/2013

Fertiliser

Nitram

Amonium nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

23/04/2013

Herbicide

Quintacel5c

645 g/l (57% w/w) chlormequat chloride

Spray

Herbicide

Scitec

Trinexapac-ethyl

Spray

Fertiliser

Bittersaltz

Magnesium Sulfate

Spray

Fertiliser

Nutriphite Excel

Phosphate

Spray

30/04/2013

Fertiliser

Nitram

Amonium nitrate

Fertiliser spreader

07/05/2013

Fungicide

Bassoon

Epoxiconazole

Spray

Fungicide

Kingdom

Boscalid, Epoxiconazole

Spray

Fungicide

Bravo 500

Chlorothalonil

Spray

Herbicide

Quintacel5c

645 g/l (57% w/w) chlormequat chloride

Spray

Herbicide

Oxytril Cm

Ioxynil, Bromoxynil

Spray

27/05/2013

Fungicide

Adexar

Epoxiconazole, Fluxapyroxad

Spray

Fungicide

Bassoon

Epoxiconazole

Spray

Fungicide

Bravo 500

Chlorothalonil

Spray

19/06/2013

Fungicide

Cello

Prothioconazole, Spiroxamine, Tebuconazole

Spray

Note: These data were compiled from information provided by the farmer, by my wonderful postdoc Dr Cristina Botias-Talamantes. Keep an eye on this blog for more revelations from her ongoing work.

Dave Goulson's research lab website

Monarch butterflies; A&E conservation not the way forwards?

Jan

02

Monarch butterflies are one of the most beautiful and remarkable of insects. They migrate annually from cool forests in the mountains of Mexico, where they hibernate in vast numbers, northwards to all of the USA and into southern Canada, where they breed on milkweed plants. Somehow their descendants, reared in North America, know exactly where to return in the autumn. Once a common sight, sadly monarch numbers have plummeted in recent years. The cause isn’t known for sure – it may be a lack of habitat, particularly a shortage of milkweeds, which are widely considered to be noxious weeds and targeted with herbicides. It may be insecticides; some, such as neonicotinoids, disrupt the ability of insects to navigate at unimaginably small doses.  Or it may be a combination of the many stresses that the modern world throws at these marvellous creatures.

The news has recently highlighted conservation campaigns in North America which are encouraging people to grow milkweeds in their gardens, and which are trying to sow wildflower mixes including milkweeds along road verges. This is of course laudable, certainly better than doing nothing, and it just may work; conservation efforts focussed on specific, charismatic (usually large and beautiful or cute) creatures do sometimes succeed. But something about this makes me deeply uneasy. It seems to me that this is a bit like applying a sticking plaster to someone who has just been run over by a lorry. There are perhaps 5 million species in the world, maybe more. The current rate of extinction is thought to be roughly 1,000 times the natural rate, with perhaps ten species going extinct every day. Most have never even been named, let alone received a concerted conservation campaign. We cannot possibly save them one species at a time.  

So what is the answer? There is no simple one. Somehow, we need to set aside more land for wildlife. We need to find ways to farm that also support biodiversity – at present, most methods of farming across the globe are disastrous for wildlife. But how do we do that and feed the ever growing human population? Most governments are obsessed with economic growth, government-funded agricultural research mostly focusses on intensifying farming and increasing yield, and most agriculture is owned and run by vast industrial enterprises focussed on short-term profit. While we continue down this route, global biodiversity is doomed to rapid erosion, until only the toughest, most adaptable creatures persist. Of course in the long term, this will reduce the ability of the planet to support us, and our descendants will be doomed to a miserable existence. Already soils covering an area the size of India have been badly degraded through intensive farming, and climate change threatens to make further vast areas uninhabitable.    

There is an alternative. For a start, if we all ate less meat and reduced the spectacular levels of food wastage (at all stages of the chain from the farm to the domestic fridge) we would need to grow an awful lot less food, and that could go a long way to solving the problem. More broadly, we need to somehow stop the endless drive for ‘growth’, given the obvious point that we live on a planet of fixed size with finite resources.

The Earth is roughly 1,000 billion miles from the nearest planet that might possibly support life. It is quite probable that we will never be able to get there, and that we may never be visited by extra-terrestrial life, if it exists. So shouldn’t we look after the only planet we have, and the unique creatures that live here with us? Helping monarchs is all very well, but band-aid measures for a few unusually pretty animals are not going to save the planet.      

PS Anyone who knows me may well feel the need to point out a certain hypocrisy; I’ve been involved in several conservation campaigns focussed on single species, such as the short-haired bumblebee reintroduction in SE England. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do these things – sometimes it is all that we can do, as individuals. Such programmes can do widespread good; the short-haired bumblebee project has resulted in lots of new flower-rich glasslands, great habitat for many species. Perhaps the monarch campaign can do the same. But a broader, holistic approach to managing the planet is needed if we are to make any significant dent in the collapse of global biodiversity.

Dave Goulson's research lab website