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Today is the 60th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring

Updated: Nov 15, 2022

Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind? Yet this is precisely what we have done.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, P 8-9

On 27th September 1962, biologist Rachel Carson published her globally acclaimed book Silent Spring describing the harmful effects of pesticide use on the environment. Her work has been groundbreaking for the environmental movement and led to the ban of highly toxic chemicals such as DDT. But 60 years later, the system didn’t change.

The products used today as insecticides are at least 1.000 times more toxic than DDT, some of them even up to 11.000 times more toxic. However, in 2022, pesticide sales are higher than ever, while Europe is one of the world's leading pesticide exporters.

While in the EU 78% of wildflower species and 84% of crop species depend, at least partly, on insect pollination, in 2019, it was reported that 40% of all insect species are declining globally and that a third of them are endangered. In fact, they are disappearing eight times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles. Studies show that intensive agriculture is the main driver of the decline, particularly the heavy use of pesticides [1][2].

“The world of systemic insecticides is a weird world, surpassing the imaginings of the brothers Grimm… It is a world where the enchanted forest of the fairy tales has become the poisonous forest in which an insect that chews a leaf or sucks the sap of a plant is doomed. It is a world where a flea bites a dog, and dies because the dog’s blood has been made poisonous, where an insect may die from vapors emanating from a plant it has never touched, where a bee may carry poisonous nectar back to its hive and presently produce poisonous honey.”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

In Europe, about a third of bee and butterfly populations are declining and about 10% of the bee and butterfly populations are endangered [3]. Bees are indicator species for pollution, meaning that their vibrancy on earth reflects certain environmental conditions and helps us measure the ecosystems' health.

Countries across Europe still use neonicotinoids (persistent systemic insecticides such as DDT) through a loophole in the legislation allowing emergency authorisations [4]. Just as the pesticide industry did for DDT, the corporations producing these deadly toxins claimed that they were harmless to species other than the pests they targeted if used correctly.

By volume, neonicotinoids are almost 11.000 times as toxic as DDT. Half of the honeybees will die when exposed to just 5 nanogrammes (0.000000005 g) of neonicotinoids. [5]

Table 1 below shows how the efficiency (meaning toxicity) of insecticides increased enormously through the years. Pesticides in the lower rows are the ones that are in the market today. Even though their toxicity has increased extremely compared to DDT, the amounts used in the field did not reduce on the same scale.

Table 1 Toxicity of insecticides to honeybees, compared to DDT. The applied dose used is given in gram per hectare, median lethal dose (LD50) is given in nanogram per bee. The final column expresses toxicity relative to DDT (DDT is 1). Source: [5]

Beekeepers across Europe and the globe are facing the devastating effects caused by the pesticide industry. They are reporting colony losses from everywhere, which shows we are facing a global issue. The work of beekeepers has never been harder than before to keep their animals in good health.

On the 27th of September 1962, Rachel Carson published her famous book ‘Silent Spring’. She gave the world an important warning. But the world didn't listen to her. Silent spring is already here, and beekeepers are in the front line witnessing it. That is why we urge decision-makers, international, EU and national governments to act coherently and increase their ambitions in the pesticide reduction targets. The EU Green Deal established 50% reduction of pesticide use for 2030, but almost 1.2 million EU citizens (Save Bees and Farmers) requested up to 80%. The silent spring cannot continue. We need ambitious pesticide reduction targets now more than ever to restore biodiversity & ensure long-term food security.

[1] Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, Kris A.G. Wyckhuys: Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers, Biological Conservation, Volume 232, 2019, Pages 8-27.

[2] Hallmann, C. A., M. Sorg, E. Jongejans, et al. 2017 More than 75 Percent Decline over 27 Years in Total Flying Insect Biomass in Protected Areas. PLOS ONE 12 (10: e0185809).

[3] What’s behind the decline in bees and other pollinators? 2019.

[4] Romania is considering granting an emergency authorisation on the use of neonicotinoids again. 2021.

[5] Pisa, L. W., V. Amaral-Rogers, L. P. Belzunces, et al. 2015 Effects of Neonicotinoids and Fipronil on Non-Target Invertebrates. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 22(1): 68–102., accessed January 12, 2015.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964): Silent Spring. September 27, 1962

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