Hungry insects threaten food security in a warming climate

Farmer harvests corn field

Farmer harvests corn field

"In some temperate countries, insect pest damage to crops is projected to rise sharply as temperatures continue to climb, putting serious pressure on grain producers", said Joshua Tewksbury, co-lead author of the research and a director of Future Earth, an worldwide research network for global sustainability.

But models assessing the agricultural effects of climate change rarely consider losses due to insects.

Prof Deutsch thinks that "by the time we get to a 2-degree warming by mid-century we would be able to detect the kind of change in insect pest damage that we're anticipating". Scientists say that one of the spillover effects of rising temperatures is that crop-destroying swarms of insects will get larger and feed faster and with increased intensity. For instance, wheat, which grows mainly in cooler temperate zones, would experience a 46% increase in insect-induced yield loss, overall. The link with metabolism is straightforward. "That's not good for crops".

The link with population growth, however, is more complex.

Public health experts have noted an increase in insect-borne diseases, from Zika, West Nile and chikungunya viruses spread by mosquitoes, to a rise in infections such as Lyme disease, which is spread by ticks. But while many insects may be declining for a variety of reasons those associated with agriculture crops - especially invasive species - seem to be doing better, said University of Delaware's Doug Tallamy, who wasn't part of the study, which he considered too broad. That is why the losses will be greatest in temperate regions, but less severe in the tropics. "But insects in the tropics are already close to their optimal temperature, so the populations will actually grow slower. It's just too hot for them". "By the end of this century, if climate change continues unabated, insects will be eating more than two loaves of every 12 that could have been made", the University of Washington, US, researcher told BBC News.

That means that the most substantial yield declines will happen in some of the world's most productive agricultural regions. But the overwhelming message of their study is that the temperature-driven global insect explosion will substantially reduce global grain supplies.


"I hope our results demonstrate the importance of collecting more data on how pests will impact crop losses in a warming world - because collectively, our choice now is not whether or not we will allow warming to occur, but how much warming we're willing to tolerate", said co-lead and corresponding author Curtis Deutsch of the University of Washington. Chop losses will possible be most acute in areas the attach warming increases each and each inhabitants narrate and metabolic charges of bugs. The study estimates that in that warmer scenario, American corn, wheat and rice losses from insects will jump by a third above current levels.

"Rice losses will taper off as the temperature rises above a certain point", said Scott Merrill, an ecologist at the University of Vermont. It implies that they are likely to need a lot more food during in their lifespan.

Wheat, corn and rice account for 42 percent of calories eaten directly by humans globally, the researchers said.

To investigate how insect herbivory on crops might affect our future, the team looked at decades of laboratory experiments of insect metabolic and reproductive rates, as well as ecological studies of insects in the wild.

Warming drives insect energy use and prompts them to eat more. But not all of these strategies will be available to all farmers. Note: material may have been edited for length and content.

Reference Increase in crop losses to insect pests in a warming climate.

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