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The world's insect population is in decline — and that's bad news for humans

While it may sound nice to live in a world with fewer roaches, environmental writer Oliver Milman says that human beings would be in big trouble without insects. That's because insects play critical roles in pollinating plants we eat, breaking down waste in forest soil and forming the base of a food chain that other, larger animals — including humans — rely upon.

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Other segments from the episode on February 24, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 24, 2022: Interview with Oliver Milman; Review of

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. If you've been around a few decades, you might remember driving with your parents on a highway and seeing the windshield of your car become pocked with the carcasses of countless bugs who met their end with vehicular contact. Well, you may not have noticed, but there are far fewer bug smudges on windshields and headlights these days. Our guest, science writer Oliver Milman, says that's just one measure of a phenomenon that could spell trouble for humans - the striking decline in insect populations around the world.

Driven by habitat loss, pesticides and global warming, the collapse of insect species means more than the loss of biological diversity on the planet. Many insects play critical roles as pollinators - not just bees, but flies that pollinate vegetable plants and midges essential to the reproduction of cocoa plants. Other insects break down rotting plant and animal waste to release nutrients and nourish soil, and many insects are critical parts of the food chain. If they disappear, the birds and other animals who eat them starve, putting the larger mammals who prey on them in trouble.

Milman's new book describes evidence of the Insectageddon, as some call it, and what scientists think can be done about it. Oliver Milman is a British journalist who's the environmental correspondent at The Guardian. His new book is "The Insect Crisis: The Fall Of The Tiny Empires That Run The World."

Well, Oliver Milman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I'm wondering - before you got into the subject and started doing this research, did you think much about insects?

OLIVER MILMAN: I didn't much. I think, like many of us, I barely thought much of them other than to think of them as an occasional annoyance. I mean, I remember as a child turning over stones and marveling at ants and the kind of complex societies they managed to construct underground. And obviously, as I got older, I appreciated bees and butterflies and many of the other kind of things that are beautiful in our world. But I suppose, like many people, I was annoyed by mosquitoes. I honestly found cockroaches revolting.

And even getting into journalism and writing about the environment and the natural world around us, I didn't pay too much attention, really, to insects. So a lot of attention, a lot of focus is drawn to these big, charismatic creatures that are under threat due to the biological crisis we find ourselves in - the rhinos and the lions and the orangutans and so on. And so insects were never really top of mind for me, either professionally or personally, but certainly that changed in the course of writing this book.

DAVIES: I mean, your book tests this thesis that the decline of insect populations is really a threat to other parts of the natural world and humanity. So let's talk about some of the ways that insects are important in ways that people may not realize. One of them is in pollinating plants, many of them that we rely on for food. I mean, we all know about bees and the - how particularly honeybee populations have been threatened, but they aren't the only ones. What are some other insects that are critical pollinators?

MILMAN: So you're right in saying that the bees get a lot of the focus and the attention when it comes to pollination. But there's a whole array of insects that provide that pollination service. In fact, it's three-quarters of the world's flowering plants and about a third of the world's food crops depend on pollinators at some stage. And so it's not just bees. We're thinking about flies. Flies are huge pollinators. That includes the midges that pollinate the cocoa crop that chocolate comes from. And there are wasps, as well. Wasps are major pollinators - again, another insect that's widely disliked but actually crucial for our environment. And without these creatures, we would be without apples, cranberries, melons, almonds, broccoli, blueberries, cherries. I mean, the list goes on and on. I mean, we'd even be without ice cream because alfalfa is pollinated by insects. That is fed to cows to produce ice cream. So we would be without many of the kind of staples of our lives, maybe the luxuries of our lives. You know, curries would become a historical dish because cardamom would not be there. Cumin would not be there. Many of the kind of spices, many of the things that make our diets kind of colorful, interesting and nutritious is - would be stripped from our lives without insects.

And I think that's the really important thing to think about when we're thinking about pollinator declines because many of the world's poor rely upon agriculture that's directly pollinated in their immediate surrounds. And without that, a lot of the nutrition is stripped from their diets. Malnutrition rates start to climb. There was one study that found that there will be an extra million deaths a year from conditions such as heart disease because of malnutrition and poor diets caused by pollinator declines. And the U.N. has warned that this is going to become a food security issue, something that the world needs to focus on quite acutely. So I think when it comes to food pollination, that's probably the primary thing that we should be thinking about when it comes to insect declines in terms of our own health and well-being.

DAVIES: Insects are also food for birds and other animals. How important are they as the base of the food chain?

MILMAN: Well, they are. Once you kind of yank insects out of the base of the food chain, everything kind of starts toppling away from above them, really. I mean, they - they're crucial in terms of just the basic foundations of forests and grassland ecosystems - when you think about replenishment of soils, the cycling of nitrogen through the soils that ensures that plants grow. And then, as you say, as food themselves - I mean, we may hate mosquitoes, but they provide a huge amount of food to frogs and then also birds. And once you start climbing up the food chain, you start affecting things that we really do value. So there - as well as these declines that have been documented in insects, bird numbers have been reported to be down in several countries. And the birds that eat insects are faring far worse than the birds that are omnivorous, such as crows, for example, say.

They provide a really important base to the food pyramid, and they provide a really crucial part of our overall environment. So, I mean, the world, our surroundings would be far quieter, far duller, far drabber without insects. To actually go through an environment where insects are plentiful, as they once were before human interference disturbed that, is to be transported into another place entirely. It's a place that's kind of humming with life - insects all around you. They bash up against your legs and your face. You can hear them. You can see them. It's a very alive, verdant place. And without them, it's - the world would be a much poorer place indeed.

DAVIES: Yeah. You open the book with an apocalyptic vision of the depletion of the Earth's insects. And with the understanding that this is a scenario, not necessarily a prediction, just share that image with us. What happens in the worst case?

MILMAN: So, yeah, we're unlikely to see a world without insects. Pretty much every expert I spoke to said that we would probably go before them in terms of our presence on Earth. So we are unlikely to see this. But in terms of an idea of what the world would be like without insects, it would be an extremely grim place. The biologist E.O. Wilson, who passed recently, he predicted we would only last a few months without insects. It would be a place of mass starvation. It'd be a place where there would be rotting feces and corpses everywhere, because dung beetles and other insects that break down those materials would be gone.

It would be a place that ought to be, like I was saying before, much quieter, much duller, much drabber. The food insecurity issue would grip the world's poorest, but then everybody else would then suffer from that, too. You would have certainly mass starvation, societal unrest, and you could imagine how things would go from there. I mean, much of the world's basic foods would go. Governments would obviously have to scramble in some way to deal with this situation. But there is not the technology nor the understanding of what insects do still in our world to replace them, so it would be quite a futile exercise in many ways. It would be an extremely dire place to live in and certainly not something we should ever aim for.

DAVIES: There's also just the marvel of diversity in the insect world. You describe some pretty bizarre insects. Do you want to share a couple of favorites with us?

MILMAN: Yeah. I mean, you can spend forever learning about insects and the things they do because there are so many of them, and yet so many of them are still unknown to us. I mean, there's 1 million known species of insect. There - it's estimated there's maybe 5 million, 10 million, maybe 30 million species of insects that we don't know about yet. And the ones we do know about - we're learning about new things about them all the time. I mean, I'm a very big fan of the caterpillars that can generate their antifreeze to ward off the cold. That seems like an incredible ability to me. There's a water beetle that, once it's eaten by a frog, can actually escape from its rear end, the frog's rear end, to actually escape being eaten by the frog. There's - I mean, even insects that we revile are extremely impressive when you think about them objectively. I mean, cockroaches can last two weeks after being beheaded. They can run at incredible speeds. They can survive huge amounts of poison and radiation, even.

Bees in themselves are just incredible creatures just in terms of their logistical work, their ability to organize socially. Honeybees can understand the concept of zero and can add and subtract numbers. You have bumblebees that researchers have found can be - can play soccer. They can learn to play soccer with food rewards. And there are bees that can detect landmines as well. I mean, there's all kinds of incredible things that they can do with their minds, for such small creatures. And so the more you learn about them, I think, the more you're enamored with them. And the warmer you feel about insects, the more you discover how incredible they really are.

DAVIES: You know, you've mentioned cockroaches and their durability. Why are they so tough? Why do they survive things that others don't?

MILMAN: You know, cockroaches are - if there was one great survivor in the insect world, it would be the cockroach. I mean, there are kind of several thousand species. Two of them are the ones that we know about the most of all, the German and the American cockroach, because those are the ones that have adapted themselves kind of ideally to our homes. They're the ones you see scuttling around, and you either shriek or try and stamp on them. But they are incredibly durable. They have chemicals in them that scientists have been trying to extract for medicines to help combat antibiotic resistance. So that helps them ward off pretty much any kind of disease going along. Most poisons that are aimed at them seem to fail. They have very strong bites. They can fit into tiny cracks about the width of a small coin. They can crash into walls at high speeds and then ascend vertically. I mean, they are almost the superheroes of insects 'cause they have these kind of extraordinary abilities, and that's allowed them to not only survive our kind of domination of this planet but actually prosper in it.

DAVIES: Can they survive intense radiation? Do we know?

MILMAN: They can up to a point (laughter). But there is that - obviously, that idea that they would be the last thing remaining after a nuclear kind of winter. But I think even they, with nuclear weapons, would probably perish. But they are extremely durable, extremely hardy.

DAVIES: Let's take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Oliver Milman. He's the environmental correspondent at The Guardian. His new book is "The Insect Crisis: The Fall Of The Tiny Empires That Run The World." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Oliver Milman. He's the environmental correspondent at The Guardian. He has a new book about the striking decline of insect populations around the world. It's called "The Insect Crisis." You know, our awareness of this loss of insect populations, you write, can be almost traced back to a specific date in 2017. What happened then?

MILMAN: So in 2017, this piece of research came out in a journal that was compiled by researchers in Germany and the Netherlands and the U.K. and essentially looked at one of the only data sets there really was up to that point, looking at insect populations stretching back several decades. So if you look back in the history of insect research, you have, you know, incredible work done looking at new species, new behaviors. You have kind of celebrity kind of fans. Winston Churchill kept butterflies to help aid his depression, and Nabokov kept butterfly genitals at the - Harvard's museum. So there's always been this kind of fandom of insects and passion for them, but nobody really thought about counting them. It seemed like a dull and kind of rather pointless thing to do 'cause insects are so legion.

But what the researchers in Germany had done is this entomological society there - they'd actually been trapping insects back decades, and they actually started to look through their data and realized something was seriously amiss. I mean, there had been kind of informal conversations about how they were seeing fewer and fewer insects in the countryside. But when they actually looked through the data, it was startling. The actual annual average weight of flying insects caught in traps there had slumped by 76% since 1989. And the situation in the height of summer, which is when insects kind of reach their apex in terms of numbers, was even worse. It was going down 82%, and these are quite astonishing declines when you think about quite a stable part of Germany. These traps are in nature preserves. They're not in kind of industrialized areas or areas we expect such big declines. So it really kind of grabbed the attention of the scientific world and then also the public.

The public then became introduced to this idea of insectageddon (ph) or insect Armageddon or the insect crisis. It started being shouted about in The Washington Post, The New York Times, newspapers and media outlets across Europe as well. So suddenly, that became, you know, on the agenda. The public was made aware of this decline, and scientists started to think, well, if it was happening in Germany, where else was it happening?

DAVIES: Yeah, you know, the book describes evidence - very, very persuasive evidence that there are specific insect species that have suffered alarming declines in their populations. I mean, the monarch butterfly is one and obviously various bee species, too. Earlier, we talked about the critical role that insects play in pollinating our plants and being the base of the food chain. And I'm wondering, have you seen the secondary effects yet? Have you seen, you know, plants that we rely on for food crops failing because insects aren't around? Or are you seeing declines in bird or other populations that feed on these insects?

MILMAN: Yeah, we already are seeing declines in bird numbers. I mean, that was the basis of one of the most kind of eye-catching studies that I saw that - by this guy called Anders Pape Moller, who's a scientist in Denmark. And he noticed that in rural Denmark, where he grew up, there does seem to be far fewer birds than there once were, and he wondered if that was linked to insect decline. So he undertook this rather eccentric study that's still underway, whereby he got into a kind of old beat-up 1960s Ford Anglia car, hit about 30, 40 miles an hour, and waited for bugs to hit his windshield. And he'd been driving up and down the same stretch of road in Denmark every summer since 1997 doing this. And some of the declines he's found are absolutely incredible, down 97% along the longest stretch of road that he's been driving down. And so he kind of, in his study, explicitly links that decline in insects to decline in birds.

And when you look elsewhere, there are similar declines. You've got drops in birds such as warblers and swallows and bluebirds, birds that really depend on insects as their main food source. Huge declines of birds in Germany, in France - we've seen similar declines of certain bird species in the U.S. and Canada, too. And scientists are increasingly linking the kind of lack of insects and also the upward kind of cascading effects of pesticide poisoning to that.

DAVIES: And what about the threat of fruits and vegetables and spices that we rely on disappearing because we're losing their pollinators?

MILMAN: Yeah, there's already evidence that that big fear, the fear of food insecurity, is starting to play out. There's - the loss of bees is already starting to limit the supply of key food crops such as apples and blueberries and cherries. You've got some places in China where the loss of insects is so great that armies of people have been told to kind of fan out and go through orchards with kind of paintbrushes and feathers on sticks to pollinate crops by hand, a hugely kind of labor-intensive operation that obviously isn't really sustainable long term. We need the insects around to do these jobs as they've done them for millions of years.

So there is this kind of growing kind of rumble of concern about food insecurity, especially when you think about what's happening with the overall trends. I mean, the world's population is growing. There's been a kind of 300% increase in the volume of agricultural production dependent on animal pollination in the last 50 years. So we are losing pollinators at a time when we're demanding more and more pollination. We have more mouths to feed. We need more farmland. We need more intensively farmed farmland in order to feed them. And at that - yeah, this kind of crucial moment, we're losing the pollinators able to do that for us.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Oliver Milman. He's the environmental correspondent at The Guardian. His new book is "The Insect Crisis: The Fall Of The Tiny Empires That Run The World." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with The Guardian's environmental correspondent, Oliver Milman, whose new book details the troubling decline in insect populations across the world. The concerns about insect species go beyond the loss of biodiversity. Many insects play critical roles in pollination and form the base of food chains that larger animals, and even humans, depend on. Milman's book is called "The Insect Crisis."

Let's just talk a bit about what has caused this decline in insect populations. It seems some of them are pretty clear. And they're all related to human civilization. I mean, one is the loss of habitat, right? We tend - I think we tend to think of the destruction of rainforests, you know, in tropical regions as the big issue in habitat destruction. But this really goes all over the place, doesn't it? What are some of the ways we're laying waste to the insects' homes and feeding grounds?

MILMAN: Yes. I mean, like you say, when we think about habitat loss, we think about the idea of the Amazon rainforest being burned down or chopped down. But, I mean, a lot of the habitat loss is far more mundane. It's the conversion of a barren piece of land - or seemingly barren piece of land into a Starbucks. It's the conversion of a field where wildflowers would grow into a field of soy or corn or another single crop. It's largely driven by agriculture. Some of it is also driven by urban sprawl, you know, the laying down of highways, of heavy industry and so on. So it's obviously a model that's exploded in Europe and North America. And that model is being transported elsewhere. You're seeing other countries adopt this method of farming large fields of single crops, dousing them with insecticides and other chemicals in order to boost their yield.

So a lot of what we consider unproductive grounds, unproductive, messy land, the kind of stuff - the place that's filled with wildflowers, with scrub, with kind of brambles and weeds - we call them weeds when they're, in fact, actually really important food providers for insects. Insects love messy places in our environment. They love a tangle of different plants and flowers. They enjoy the diversity. We've actually sought to stamp out diversity in our lives around this. We want uniformity, tidiness, a kind of manicured landscape of lawns and crops and very well-ordered cities that don't have weeds and plants growing everywhere. And that's actually been deathly for insects.

DAVIES: So to the extent - I mean, big agriculture is, of course, a huge problem. But for those of us who, you know, live urban or suburban lives, you don't need a manicured lawn? You're better off if there's some weeds here and there (laughter)?

MILMAN: Yeah. I mean, when I spoke to an entomologist about what we need to do, she said, well, we need more of an inaction plan rather than an action plan. I mean, it's not like we need to invent a new vaccine here or some new computer program or a space program or anything like that. It's simply about letting go some of the habits we've got ourselves into. So maybe rake your lawn a little less. Rake the leaves a little less.

Maybe not have just manicured grass that you cut down every week. Maybe let it grow a little. Maybe have some native plants in, rather than those kind of striking ornamental plants that you like. Just let things just go a little bit. Maybe don't have as many chemicals that you put in your yard. And I know there's a kind of a cultural aspect to that. Many of us like the idea of kind of well-ordered, tidy lawn. It's kind of socially acceptable to have that. It's seen as the ideal. But in terms of insects, it's extremely bad. And so there should maybe be a rethink about what we should be doing with that.

DAVIES: Pesticides are a big problem. And it makes sense that they would, since they're generally targeted at insects that eat crops and other plants humans want to keep. You write that there's a class of compounds called neonicotinoids, if I'm saying that right...

MILMAN: Neonicotinoids - or neonics for short.

DAVIES: OK. Neonic, good. They're often - they're used as insecticides and widely used. And you say that they don't just directly kill the insects that they're targeted at, but they have effects that kind of ricochet throughout the environment, right?

MILMAN: Yeah. That's right. So this is a kind of class of insecticide that's been kind of widely adopted in the U.S. and many other countries. And they're not just sprayed anymore. I mean, neonics are embedded in the coats of the seeds that are given to farmers. So often, farmers don't even know that they've got neonics in their field. They're just given that by the company that sells them. And the reason they're put in the seeds of the - coats of the seeds is that they're systemic pesticides, which means that they go through every kind of root and branch of the plant as it grows, so therefore protecting the plant, theoretically, from pests.

The unfortunate thing is they're water soluble. So as soon as it rains, they leach out of the plant, into the soils, into the water, therefore effecting any kind of life, really, that's in there. And also, the frustrating thing for many entomologists is that they don't really affect the problem. I mean, the peak of the pest, the target pest, actually comes after much of the insecticide is washed away. So you're not actually really protecting crops. And crop yields have been shown to dramatically increase because of their use. But you are affecting bees and butterflies and other really important predator insects that would eat the pests that you're trying to keep away.

So they've actually been fairly disastrous for many insects. But they are widely used. I mean, the crop plan that will be planted this year in the U.S. will be about the size of Texas in terms of the area treated by neonicotinoids. So it's a kind of pervasive problem. The toxicity of the rural environment is growing and growing. The past quarter-century has seen U.S. agriculture become 48 times more toxic to insect life, one study found. So this kind of poison is building up and up and up in terms of the agricultural land in the U.S. And that is pretty - extremely harmful to insects.

DAVIES: You know, as we speak, I can imagine farmers who use these insecticides and the manufacturers of them listening and saying, wait a minute, there's another side to this story.

MILMAN: Yeah. So there's kind of big three pesticide companies now. Bayer, Monsanto - which subsumed Monsanto, is one of them. They're the ones that make Roundup. They're the ones that manufacture a lot of these neonics. And their argument is, well, look; we help food production around the world. If the world - we didn't have these chemicals, then the world would not be able to feed itself.

And certainly, when you speak to scientists about this point, they will concede, well, yes, we do need pesticides in certain places at certain times. I mean, it's not like crops do not benefit at all from pesticides at certain moments. I think the problem has been the overapplication of them. The sheer volume of chemicals going into the fields has actually been disastrous for life all around there, but also has been unhelpful in terms of the crop itself because you just get into a cycle. You need more and more chemicals. So I think the industry tells a part of the story. I say part of the story - that's not completely incorrect, but it doesn't look at the broader picture.

They also tend to talk a lot about honeybee hives so - managed honeybee hives, that there's kind of 19 million of them around the world. They haven't decreased. But they don't really talk about wild bees, and I think that's kind of telling because wild bees are the ones that aren't protected by humans, aren't - their numbers aren't replenished by humans. They have no protection from the environment they live in, and they are in sharp decline in many places around the world.

DAVIES: Climate change is a huge factor in the decline of insects. I mean, give us some examples of how it's affecting populations.

MILMAN: Yeah. Well, there was this assumption, I think, amongst some scientists that insects would be less affected by climate change than other creatures. I mean, they are - after all, they are the great survivors of our world. They've survived the five great mass extinctions that we know of in Earth's history where the climate changed, you know, radically. But the more recent research has actually found that they are actually maybe more in peril than many other types of creature in the world. There was a study showing that by the end of the century, half of all insect species will lose more than half of their current range - the range they're able to live in - if temperatures are not kept in check. So the actual bands of temperature, the bands of precipitation the insects feel comfortable in - as they start to shift, not many of them will be able to move. So we obviously all heard stories of fish being able to swim towards the poles or other creatures being able to kind of migrate northwards to kind of cooler climes as the world heats up. Insects are very limited in their ability to do that. I mean, some dragonflies can fly long distances. But other than that, insects pretty much stick to the area that they have always been.

So there is a kind of - a big worry that climate change will take a massive dent in populations. And we're already seeing the start to that. There was a study in 2020 that found that some bumblebee populations have nearly halved in North America and down by about 17% in Europe in recent decades. And the bees suffering the worst have been in the areas that have heated up the most. So there are these links now being established between climate change and individual insect populations declining.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Oliver Milman. He is the environmental correspondent at The Guardian. His new book is "The Insect Crisis: The Fall Of The Tiny Empires That Run The World." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Oliver Milman. He is the environmental correspondent at The Guardian. His new book details the troubling decline in insect populations across the world. It's titled "The Insect Crisis."

Well, at the end of the book, you look at some efforts to reverse things and restore habitats and reverse or impede the decline of insect populations, particularly in the areas of habitat, et cetera. Some of this is going on in Europe, some in New York. Tell us about what you found.

MILMAN: Yeah, so there are some efforts to help recreate the kind of world that insects flourished in. And there are, like you say, efforts all over the place that can be attributed to that. Bavaria is a good example - the state in Germany that actually passed a referendum in 2019 to give 30% of farmlands over to become organic and insect-friendly, to put back wetlands and hedgerows, pesticide use to be slashed and so on. And these kind of efforts are kind of gathering pace in several countries. The EU has banned all the major neonic pesticides that we were talking about before. Germany has - is looking to shut down outdoor lighting that's intrusive and also encourage people not to use gas-powered leaf blowers. They're very noisy, of course, and polluting but also terrible for insects because they like to gather onto leaf litter and so on. So there are these kind of moves underway.

In the U.S., you are seeing efforts at a kind of city level, I think, mostly of all. You've got these laws in New York where new buildings have to consider installing green roofs, which are these kind of oases of grasses and plants. I saw one in New York City. It's an incredibly vibrant place to be. If a building owner's able to do it, it's - it seems like a very good idea. Detroit is placing bee colonies in kind of previously derelict areas. Some other cities are looking at putting patches of grass and plants on the top of bus shelters and other kind of unused spaces.

So there is a kind of rethinking about how we order the environment around us, that we can maybe let nature in - back in a little bit rather than pushing it away. And insects will benefit from that. I mean, one scientist said what we're doing at the moment is a bit like a submerged log. We're pushing the log down into the water. But if you let the - take your foot off the log, they will - it will rebound. And that's what will happen to insects because they can repopulate themselves so quickly. If we take away some of the pressures there, insects should be able to rebound.

DAVIES: You said one counterintuitive thing that might help is eating insects. Explain this.

MILMAN: Yes. So it seems counterintuitive, but it is the case that farming insects at scale to eat is actually far better for the environment than raising cattle, for example. So cows require a lot of land. A lot of it comes from pasture that's come from deforestation. They cause a lot of air and water pollution. They contribute to climate change and so on. Whereas if you have just a small kind of barn of crickets, you can kind of breed millions of them with a kind of minimal environmental impact.

And the other good thing is that they're pretty good for you. They're kind of packed in protein, high in kind of zinc and iron. And, of course, in many parts of the world, eating insects isn't a kind of a disgusting thing. It's quite a normal thing. There's about 2,000 species of insects, crickets, cicadas, mealworms and so on that have been eaten for generations in part of the world. And the West, I think, is slowly coming onto the idea. You're starting to see restaurants and some supermarkets embrace insect-based diets, you know, crickets with chili on them, ants dipped in lemon. Perhaps we'll start eating all those soon.

DAVIES: You know, I began by asking you if, before you got onto this subject, you paid much attention to insects. Do you look at them differently now?

MILMAN: I do. Yes, I do. I mean, I think it was about two summers ago, my kitchen was invaded by a kind of army of ants. And they just kept marching into my kitchen. Whatever I tried to do to try and stop the flow of them, patch up the hole they were coming through, they would find a new way in. And I think maybe a little while ago, I'd be extremely annoyed by that. But now I was kind of fascinated and impressed by their tenacity and their adaptability. And that was a consistent theme throughout writing this book.

And now I kind of appreciate insects in a way that I didn't quite before in terms of their - the way that they've managed to kind of carve a niche for themselves for 400 million years and survive these great events through their ingenuity. And now they're faced by the greatest crisis they've probably ever faced now. And I can only hope that we're able to allow them a little bit of breathing room to allow these very impressive creatures to remain with us.

DAVIES: I wonder if it's frustrating that you spend so much time writing about this and documenting the threat and policymakers just don't seem to be moving.

MILMAN: Yeah. I mean, it is occasionally frustrating. I mean, many journalists in this area have kind of privately and publicly complained that, you know, the stories they write should be headline news. Every day should be kind of scream from the rooftops. But unfortunately, I think as a society, we don't do very well with slow-moving emergencies. We can react quickly to to things that are seemingly fast paced and imminent. If you look at the response we had to the coronavirus pandemic, for example, the world could move just as quickly to deal with carbon emissions, but it doesn't. And a lot of that is down to kind of vested interests and kind of practiced way of doing things, the political sway that those vested interests have and so on.

So yeah, it is frustrating sometimes. Sometimes it can be quite dark and despairing, especially if you have children, thinking about the world that they're going to grow up in. But, I mean, ultimately, we are trying to make the world a better place, I think, all of us for humans, for children, as well as all the other creatures and wonderful things in this world. So it's definitely something worth fighting for and worth informing the public over.

DAVIES: Well, Oliver Milman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MILMAN: Thank you so much, Dave.

DAVIES: Oliver Milman is the environmental correspondent at The Guardian. His new book is "The Insect Crisis: The Fall Of The Tiny Empires That Run The World." Coming Up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album from singer-songwriter Mitski. This is FRESH AIR.

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