Poison in, poison out: bon appétit

It killed plants, birds, insects, but it’s good for you!

On our trip to France, we decided to drive through the small country roads to reach our destination crisscrossing farmlands, villages and patches of woodlands. We stopped now and then to admire the beautiful villages, churches and agricultural landscapes which seemed deserted compared to India with its over one billion people. Soon I started to notice something odd: everything was too quiet. We did not hear the chirping of the birds, see fluttering butterflies and other insects. We stayed with a friend at Uzès, a small picturesque village in the south with remarkable historical monuments preserved over the ages. The evening descended and the air was filled with chirps of hundreds of birds coming to the avenue trees to roost. These were flocks of starlings. They had left by morning and raucously announced their return at dusk. However, in the countryside, again there were too few birds. Since it was late September I thought that perhaps this was normal, but Jean-Philippe remembered much more life from his childhood.

On return to India, I asked Dr. Raphaël Mathevet, Head of the Department of Ecology at the French Institute of Pondicherry, about the paucity of avifauna in rural France, particularly in agricultural landscapes. He wrote back stating that scientists at CNRS and the Museum of Natural History in Paris had recorded a catastrophic decline in avifauna particularly in agricultural landscapes https://www.lemonde.fr/biodiversite/article/2018/03/20/les-oiseaux-disparaissent-des-campagnes-francaises-a-une-vitesse-vertigineuse_5273420_1652692.html. They have noted an 80-90% decline of some birds since the mid 1990’s that they attributed to agricultural practices such as pesticide and herbicide usage that decreased the number of insects for insectivorous birds, and wild plants for seed eating birds. Agricultural intensification, particularly practices such as spraying pesticides, fertiliser use and weeding was associated with biodiversity loss in European farmlands (https://www.wur.nl/en/show/Effects-of-agricultural-intensification-on-biodiversity-and-ecosystem-processes-on-European-farmland.htm) and destruction of pollination services.

The Europeans may be getting more tolerant of large mammals due to supportive public opinion (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/346/6216/1517.full) but they are killing their small biodiversity. In India, large carnivores survive in human dominated landscapes due to the tolerance of people to wildlife presence. However, with agricultural intensification, we will be following the same way as Western countries. Poison in the environment and in the food. Can it be tolerated?

Priya Davidar