Insects Underpin Our Economies: We Need To Act Now Against Insect Decline

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Senior Research Scientist Research Institute for Development (IRD)
Editor in ChiefInternational Journal of Insect Science
Visiting ScientistInternational Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE)
7 March 2019

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

Insects make up about half of all living species and three quarters of the animal kingdom. They are a highly diverse group that thrive in a range of ecological niches, from the desert to the arctic zone. Insects play an essential role in the natural food chain, and a large number of plant species owe their existence and reproduction to these charming critters.  

Insects are also unsung pillars of our economies, and they perform many essential ecosystem different services. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Pollination: Over 75% of the world’s top 115 crops benefit from pollination, representing 35% of global food supplies. It is estimated that insect pollination services to vegetables and fruits are worth €153 billion per year.
  • Crop pest control: The use of insects as biological control agents is well developed in the agricultural sector. The reported economic benefit of employing a tiny wasp over a 20-year period to control maize stemborer pests in West Africa was about USD $200 million, including savings on insecticides.
  • Maintaining soil fertility: Insects contribute in large part to soil nutrient cycling and biomass transformation and decomposition.
  • Providing a vital food source: In the wild, insects are part of the trophic cascade of birds, mammals, amphibians and fish. In industry, some species are used for animal feed and food (e.g. in poultry and fish farms), and some species are also used for human consumption (e.g. in parts of Africa and Asia, and even in trendy restaurants in New York City).

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

While there is some research on the economic value of insect services like pollination, pest control, soil decomposition and nutrient cycling, other services, such as the maintenance of soil structure and fertility, are difficult to directly link directly to consumables and are therefore harder to evaluate in global monetary terms. However, the total annual global economic value for insect services is estimated to be in the trillions; and in the USA alone is an estimated USD $57 billion.

Despite our all-around reliance on insects, recent studies document an alarming decline of insect populations and diversity—all due to human activity. This has profound implications for the worldwide food web, ecosystems and economies.

Photo by Emily Goodhart on Unsplash

From an ecological perspective, the primary risk of insect decline is a trophic extinction cascade, and, in fact, a significant decline in birds and amphibians has already been reported. From an economic perspective, the absence of pollinators would drop global crop production by 3–8%, and the absence of these natural pest controllers will enable invasive species to spread with an estimated global cost currently USD $1.4 trillion USD a year. From a social perspective, we would lose the creatures that charm us as children and inspire us as adults. 

For economic, environmental and social reasons, need to take urgent action against insect decline. 

Insect conservation requires very specific actions and policies that differ substantially from the actions required for vertebrate species conservation. It does not necessarily require large-scale ecosystem or landscape preservation, the way, for example, large mammal conservation does.

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

The good news is that different approaches to insect conservation are being developed or implemented but require significant scale up. This will require significant support from policy, civil society, financial institutions, and green industry. These approaches include biodiversity-friendly agriculture; the development of insect conservatories (e.g. bees conservatories); restricted use of insecticides; and the development of ecological networks (e.g. small corridors).

The actions that need be taken will require the full support of government, advocacy groups, education and training institutes, the broader research community, businesses—particularly in the food and agriculture sector— and the general public. These include:

  • Improving public understanding of the value of insects to ecosystems and economies;
  • Supporting innovative methods of pest control that do not rely on agrochemicals;
  • Strengthening the insect taxonomy capacity. The capacity to identify insect species is dwindling: we need to build a critical mass of specialists;
  • The establishment, revival, or upscaling of insect accounting or monitoring programs. In Africa, for example, there is little data to demonstrate the value of insects to local economies, or insect loss;
  • Intensifying research on the drivers of insect decline. In most cases, we can only identify possible causes and are unable to assess their relative importance on any scale, whether global, national, regional or local;
  • Enhancing research on the impacts of climate change on insects.

For more information, please see the recent UN Environment Foresight brief, We are losing the “Little things that run the world.


The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.