Insect Apocalypse, Sulfuryl Fluoride, and the New Montreal Protocol

Considering a potential factor in global insect declines

There have been increasingly frequent discussions in the scientific community about a mass insect extinction event; From a meticulous German study documenting that “The country has lost three-quarters of its aerial insects since 1989,” to a similar report in Puerto Rico observing “in the past 35 years, the abundance of invertebrates such as beetles and bees had decreased by 45 percent.” The evidence for global insect decline seems to be coalescing.

Such a phenomenon will wreak havoc on global ecosystems, and especially human civilization at large. Aerial insect pollinators are absolutely critical to global food supplies. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Three out of four crops across the globe producing fruits or seeds for human use as food depend, at least in part, on pollinators.”

While general aerial insect populations seem to be declining across the globe, bees are the most critical and concerning target. Threats to bee populations have been widely studied to incite popular concern. As with any ecological web, the processes that disrupt bee colonies are influenced by a confluence of factors. Varroa mites are a prominent threat, as they directly destroy beehives.

However, the causation behind the rising threat of invading mites is likely a more complex phenomenon. Human population growth decimates forests and havens for biodiversity. Moreover, the widespread use of pesticides for lawns and mono-crop agriculture corrupts bees’ diets. Bees, like humans, thrive on a diverse diet, especially one without trace amounts of poison.

In fact, bees may actually seek out diverse medicinal remedies in the form of new food sources, as was observed in a Nature article published in October. When Varroa mites invade a hive, bees have been observed seeking out special fungi to harvest as medicine for the rest of the hive. This fungus is particularly potent at killing the Varroa mite.

Of the hundreds of thousands of plants and fungi species in existence, each has its own unique and evolutionary techniques for fighting bacteria, viruses, and parasites in their environment. We will lament as global biodiversity declines, the opportunities for studying these uncharted medicinal systems will disappear. As bee immune systems are destroyed from lack of access to a diverse plant diet, our food diets will be destroyed too.

Imagine for a moment that you could only eat Roundup-laced bread for the rest of time. Nothing else, no medicines, no greens, mushrooms, fruit or meat. That’s what bees are up against.

Now, to add insult to injury, the very air that bees (and humans) breathe is also being poisoned.

Because pesticides and mono-crops are also critical to the food supply in terms of economics. While bees are friends to humans, there are many insects that directly threaten food supplies. Therefore, tens of billions of dollars worth of food are dependent upon the use of pesticides. Pesticides that sometimes make way- and cause damage- to our digestive systems. More disturbingly, pesticides can inundate the very air we breathe- no matter where we are on Earth:

A particularly potent pesticide called Sulfuryl Fluoride is used as a fumigant to kill insects across food supply chains. Sulfuryl Fluoride is not simply effective at killing insects, it also is particularly noxious for humans as well:

“Inhalation of sulfuryl fluoride is hazardous and may result in respiratory irritation, pulmonary edema, nausea, abdominal pain, central nervous system depression, numbness in the extremities, muscle twitching, seizures, and death.”

More disturbingly, an MIT project measuring greenhouse gas concentrations at seven global locations has revealed a strange trend:

Similar to greenhouse gases like CFC’s and Methyl bromide, Sulfuryl fluoride’s use by humans is leading to it filling the global atmosphere. As a result, Sulfuryl fluoride is steadily increasing in the very air we breathe. Not to mention, it is also “a greenhouse gas which is about 4000–5000 times more efficient in trapping infrared radiation (per kg) than carbon dioxide.” However, compounding the effects of global warming may be mere secondary threat to its other implications.

Slight temperature changes collapsing ecological networks is a terrible problem. That threat however may pale in comparison to the consequences of insects around the world breathing a continually higher proportion of pesticide fumigant. In every part of the world.

The only good news for insects and people is that international legislation has in the past outlawed and slowed the decline of noxious atmospheric gasses. Take chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), for example, which was commonly used in aerosol and refrigerants for decades. As CFC’s decimated the Earth’s ozone layer (which blocks harmful UV radiation), an international accord called the Montreal Protocol was passed as an international accord to phase out its use.

Enacted in the 1990s, the atmospheric concentration of CFC’s has been declining as a result, and the ozone is being slowly restored. Ozone guards against harmful UV radiation, and was depleting in the atmosphere due to aerosol use. Under the Montreal Protocol, another noxious pesticide fumigant has been phased out in the name of restoring the ozone: Methyl bromide is a common pesticide fumigant, which was later replaced by Sulfuryl fluoride, as the Montreal Protocol was enforced.

As a result of the banning of Methyl bromide, Sulfuryl fluoride use is on the rise. While it may or may not be a direct threat to the ozone layer, it should likely be restricted under similar measures. Preemptive measures on pesticides can have a negative effect on global food supplies, but in this case, it may be worth it.

Sulfuryl fluoride will likely have horrible negative long-term consequences. We should be preventative rather than reactive to the problems it will cause. The Montreal Protocol was the most effective environmental accord in history. We need to expand its scope or draft a new kind of accord to more heavily regulate Sulfuryl fluoride.

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