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SITC calls for new Government focus and support on halting the decline of insects and other invertebrates across the UK

7 March 2024

In today’s report on insect decline and food security, the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee calls for “effective and sustainable crop protection strategies to be demonstrated at a commercial scale” and for Government to begin to more strongly support the development, regulation and practical application of pesticide alternatives.

In the UK, 70% of land is farmed: it is agricultural practices that have the major influence on insect populations. Pesticides used to target pest species can have off-target effects on beneficial insects. The impact of pesticides and other chemical inputs on insect species that are not pollinators remains little understood.

The UK has made international commitments to reducing the overall risk caused by pesticides by at least half by 2030, and has made statutory targets to halt and reverse species extinctions and decline in abundance by 2042.

These targets are ambitious and welcome - but are also narrow and incomplete. Numerous species and in some cases entire groups, some of which are vital for UK food security, are excluded. The National Action Plan for Sustainable Pesticide Use, a crucial policy to address both knowledge gaps and encourage reductions in pesticide usage, has been delayed by six-years.

A sometimes contentious debate exists between nature conservation groups and agriculturalists regarding the use of conventional pesticides, but both sides acknowledge the importance of developing new solutions. Most witnesses did not see the prospect of insecticides being phased out entirely in agricultural use. However, the Committee heard strong evidence that the issues arising from insect decline go far wider than the loss of “charismatic” species like bees and other pollinators, to encompass less well understood players in our food supply chains and the wider ecosystems that support them and our environment.

In domestic gardens, the question is not food security but the great enjoyment, mental and physical health benefits and engaging the population, of all ages, in ecology.  The Royal Horticultural Society plans for its garden at Wisley to be 100% pesticide-free by 2025, except where absolutely necessary to deal with invasive species. The Committee says there is now an opportunity to work with such leading organisations to phase down the use of pesticides in domestic horticulture.

Approximately 50% of the food consumed in the UK is imported, making it subject to vulnerabilities such as wars and accelerating climate change. It is integral to UK food security that issues regarding insect decline and food production are also addressed at an international level, and the UK Government should use its position in international forums to advocate for and address the issues highlighted in this report on a global scale.

About half of the UK’s protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are not in a good state and are failing to conserve biodiversity, and protected sites do not exist in isolation but are influenced by the quality of nature in the surrounding environment. Statutory requirements to improve SSSIs will go some way to prevent more insect species extinction but it is unlikely that these improvements will be sufficient to halt decline in species abundance. 

Substantial knowledge gaps regarding insect and wider invertebrate populations must be rectified, and the Committee says Government must expand its knowledge and expertise, looking beyond the 'Red List' of species at risk of extinction to develop a ‘Baseline list’ with a wider view of progress against crucial biodiversity targets. It echoes the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee's recommendation that the Government should publish the delayed National Action Plan no later than May this year.

The Committee heard a concern that naturalist skills are declining in the UK. Much knowledge of smaller, lesser-known insect groups lies, as it always has done, with amateurs rather than professional academics. The Committee hopes the new Natural History GCSE will help to foster interest in all insects, especially their central role in ecology, for younger generations to come.

Chair's comment

Science, Innovation and Technology Committee Chair, Rt Hon Greg Clark said:

“Food security depends on maintaining and improving the biodiversity essential to ecosystems, and so does the much wider environment that we depend on for our lives, livelihoods and well-being.

“That we do not fully or perhaps even well understand much of how these natural systems work, or about the risks to them and important species that we may losing, must not be a cause for despair or apathy. Rather, let the concerns raised in this inquiry be a clarion call for renewed efforts, research, education and interest in our natural environment.

“Let’s see the Government’s long-delayed plan for sustainable pest management, and work with the great range of passionate and committed organisations, expert and amateur, dedicated to recreating and realising the rich and biodiverse potential of the UK’s natural world.”

Further information

Image: J Williams/Unsplash