Whether the plague of locusts in East Africa or insect loss in Germany: These catastrophes are due to climate change, the great need for food and mistakes in agriculture.

“Our soils are under pressure to perform,” warned Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner (CDU) recently when she presented the  2035 arable farming strategy to the federal government. “In 1900 a farmer fed ten people. Today he feeds 155 people.” The cultivation of different crops, the so-called crop rotation and the use of resistant seeds should, therefore, have priority over monocultures and intensive farming in the future.

And the Insect Atlas, which was recently published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the BUND (Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation) and the Red List published by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) in 2018  illustrate that especially in large fields where intensive and monotonous agriculture, insects and plants can no longer find a habitat.

High levels of nutrients in originally poor locations make many wild plants difficult. This is dramatic because insects pollinate almost all wild and cultivated plants. In this way, they provide food indirectly to humans and are consumed by birds. Bees, butterflies, and beetles are essential for the ecosystem. And indirectly for the economy: the Heinrich Böll Foundation quoted experts at the launch of the Insect Atlas, which put the pollinating performance of insects in the worldwide cultivation of fruit, vegetables, and cereals at between $ 200 and $ 600 billion.

Close-up of Flame Adonis floret.  This plant is threatened with extinction.  Three scarlet flowers with brown goblets and slender green leaves enrich every field and every wheat field.Threatened with extinction: herbicides and fertilizers are a problem for the Adonis flames

Why the bees get dizzy

Insects react to pesticides, such as those used in industrial agriculture to increase production, with disorientation. In 2014, a study by Berlin neurobiologist and bee researcher Randolf Menzel with the now-banned agent’s imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiacloprid showed that even small amounts of these insecticides affect the nervous system of bees.

New business area for the chemical industry?

The public is increasingly critical of the use of crop protection products, not least because of the controversial effects of glyphosate. The Bayer Group, which recently made international headlines because of the chemical agent “Round-Up”, product of the Bayer subsidiary Monsanto, points out to DW that ecological damage such as insect death and the increasing development of resistance by harmful organisms to pests the active substances of pesticides and the tightening of approval requirements are increasingly restricting the use of synthetic chemical pesticides.

A man with a short-sleeved light blue shirt and black cap looks at a round-up plastic canister.  The chemical crop protection product is sold by the Bayer subsidiary Monsanto.  It contains the controversial glyphosate.Very effective, very controversial: Glyphosate in the chemical pesticide Round-Up

“This is why alternative solutions for both ecological and conventional agriculture for yield and quality assurance are becoming increasingly important,” says Bayer spokesman Utz Klages. Bayer attaches great importance to the fact that the products are safe for beneficial organisms and other non-target organisms and only intervene in nature to the extent that it is necessary to enable productive agriculture. Bayer has committed to further reducing the ecological footprint along the value chain to stop the loss of biodiversity.

Agriculture 4.0 – digital crop protection 

In addition to chemicals, Bayer markets biological crop protection products for conventional agriculture and promotes the development of more environmentally friendly farming methods through digital farming.

Based on measurements and data collection, pests, diseases, and weeds will be identified in the square centimeter. And if the plants need help, the best time to fertilize and to use pesticides as gently and sustainably as possible is determined.

Susanne Smolka, the biologist at the critical pesticide action network (PAN), admits in the DW interview that “the elimination of synthetic chemical pesticides is usually not achieved by one measure alone, but by the interaction of various measures, such as prevention, the cultivation of robust varieties and avoiding cultivation on unsuitable areas.

Harvested by hand: A Chinese cotton picker with a pink headscarf is harvesting white cotton threads that resemble large cotton balls.  As elsewhere, the monocultures in Hami / China need a lot of water and crop protection.  More than 10 percent of the pesticides used worldwide are applied to cotton plantationsAs elsewhere, cotton monocultures need a lot of water and crop protection

A neighborhood trick helps: catch plants 

Cotton is a prime example: no other plant is so susceptible because the warm climate and the irrigated, moist soil in the growing regions promote the spread of diseases and pests. According to the Munich Environmental Institute, 16 percent of all chemical insecticides worldwide are sprayed on cotton fields to kill whiteflies, capsule caterpillars and aphids. Ecological pest control is very effective, says Smolka from PAN: “So-called  catch plants distract insects and lure them  away from the cotton.”

Researchers are looking for alternatives to the chemical clubs

Laboratories and fields are looking for alternatives to crop protection products. “Chemical pesticides are highly effective, relatively inexpensive and can be used at short notice if necessary”, Alexander Bonde of the German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU) describes the dilemma: “The alternatives often require a holistic approach, from soil cultivation and variety selection to biological crop protection to the consideration of marginal structures the fields and planting flower strips. ” The DBU is providing 315,000 euros to research alternatives to pesticides is currently available and is funded by a laser project: The rays of the laser should precisely and selectively identify problem weeds and make them harmless through light treatment, while unproblematic arable wild herbs are left undamaged.

Natural enemies such as wasps, pathogens such as nudiviruses or fungi, microorganisms, catch measures with pheromones (fragrances), the cultivation of “diversion fruits” in the plantations and a quick harvest: all of these can contribute to minimizing damage.

Solutions for environmentally friendly agriculture

Ralf Bloch from the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) points out in a DW conversation that you always have to find regional, farm-specific and preventive solutions. The ZALF is in charge of organic farming projects all over the world. “The goal is not to have weed-free stocks,” explains Bloch. “They are part of the ecological system and important for pollinators. However, they have to be regulated, in part, they are buried by rakes in order to have a good crop yield.”

In Iran, a ZALF employee is currently developing a three-crop cultivation system with barley, feed grain and grasses for sheep and goats side by side under difficult dry soil conditions. “By permanently covering the soil, we prevent erosion, maintain soil fertility and promote the formation of dew. If the soil is uncovered, it dries out faster, valuable components are blown away,” explains Ralf Bloch, the measures that are closely coordinated with farmers and farmers. There too, the pressure is growing to have to produce more in less space.

Dr.  Dietrich Stephan - microbiologist and developer of biological crop protection productsMicrobiologist Dietrich Stephan and his colleagues are working on biological crop protection from the laboratory

Dietrich Stephan from the Julius Kühn Institute examines fungi that are used effectively against harmful insects and has also had a good experience with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT). This produces a protein that is absorbed by the insect pest and destroys its intestinal wall. BT is successfully used not only in agriculture but also in mosquito control. Biological crop protection is not yet so effective in weed control, Stephan admits.

As part of a research project, Stephan helped develop a biological process using microorganisms to fight desert grasshoppers.

And yet another insect could do great damage: the autumn armyworm.

In Costa Rica, the pest was well under control for a long time, also because a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis had been introduced into a genetically modified BT maize. The armyworm was able to immigrate from Africa to Latin America and spread rapidly to India, China, and Sri Lanka.

Now Jehle, Stephan, and their biologist colleagues are looking for opponents, pathogens and beneficial organisms in order to control this pest too.


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