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OPINION

Eye on France: Bugs bashed in biodiversity battle

Birds and insects, as seen by the Spanish artist Joan Miro.
Birds and insects, as seen by the Spanish artist Joan Miro. Grand Palais

Times are hard for insects. One of the tragic consequences of climate change is a massive reduction in biodiversity. And bugs are suffering a lot worse than other most other beasts. That's not good news for anybody. And we have the latest bad news for the former Nissan chairman, Carlos Ghosn.

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Many plants and animals are having a hard time, some have already disappeared completely. Now, an Australian study shows that the level of extinction among insects is eight times higher than among other animal species. That’s bad news, both for them, obviously, since the bugs risk joining the ranks of the extinct, and for us, who could rapidly follow them down the gurgler, since no insects will mean no pollination and, ultimately, no food.

The report from scientists at Sydney University, which features in today’s French daily paper Le Monde, says the earth’s creepy-crawly population could be reduced to zero within the next century. And that, the same researchers warn, would bring about what they call the “catastrophic collapse of all natural ecosystems”.

Forty percent of all insect populations are in decline, including bees, butterflies, beetles and ants. Their part of the biomass, the total weight of all living things on the planet, has declining by two-and-a-half percent every year over the past three decades. Which means either that there’ll be none left at all within one hundred years, or that the useful ones will have been replaced by a few particularly nasty remnants.

A worldwide wipe-out

The phenomenon is global. Porto Rico has catalogued a 98 percent decline in insect numbers over the past 35 years; in Germany, three quarters of the insects inside protected nature reserves have vanished.

The latest Australian study actually compiles the results of 73 long-term research projects carried out over the past 40 years.

Insects are notoriously difficult to count, since a lot of them survive by remaining invisible. That’s why the Australian report is based on comparative studies based on counts carried out in small areas repeatedly visited over a minimum period of a decade.

Once the insects vanish, the ecological snowball starts rolling.

First, their direct predators die of starvation. Then it’s the turn of the birds and frogs that eat the predators, and so on up the food chain.

Worse, since at least one-third of the food crops currently cultivated by human farmers require insect pollination, without the bugs we can say bye, bye to fruit and veg. There’ll still be stuff to eat, but there’ll be a lot less variety.

Who, or what, is to blame?

There seem to be four major culprits: urbanisation, deforestation and pollution, with the extensive use of chemical pesticides in modern agriculture adding the killing blow.

Global insect numbers have been on the decline since the start of the industrial revolution, but the major crises date from the 1920s, and the first chemical fertilisers, then the 1950s with the widespread use of organic pesticides. Since the 1990s, we’ve been living through the last great hecatomb, this time caused by extremely efficient synthetic chemicals.

It’s a vicious circle: the search for better returns has driven the creation of killer chemicals, which will inevitably force a decline in returns as the insects die off.

And the researchers say there is only one real solution: a complete re-think of the way we farm. Stop using pesticides, and stop draining and ploughing up the land the wee beasties need if they are to survive.

And more flowers would help too, even if only in the form of flowering weeds. The more vegetal variety there is in a neighbourhood, the more insects are likely to be attracted there.

More bad news for Mr Ghosn

And then there’s the latest bad news for Carlos Ghosn, the former boss of the Nissan-Renault motor empire, currently in jail in Japan where he’s accused of serious financial misdeeds.

Earlier today, Ghosn’s top defence lawyer, Motonari Otsuru, resigned from the case, without giving any reason for his decision to drop the Franco-Lebanese superboss.

And it could hardly come at a worse time, since the first official meeting between judges, prosecutors and the defence, with a view to getting ready for Ghosn’s trial, is scheduled to take place tomorrow. The man who takes over from Otsuru will have 24 hours to get up to speed on a very complicated case.

Having Motonari Otsuru in his camp has always been seen as a bonus for Carlos Ghosn, since the defence lawyer started his career on the other side of the courtroom, prosecuting those accused of white-collar crime. In other words, he’s a gamekeeper turned poacher who used to work for the people who arrested Ghosn last November.

Did he jump or was he pushed?

It is well known that Otsuru disapproved of Ghosn’s recent contacts with the international press, feeling that the Japanese judges might see the initiative as a form of pressure. But it’s equally well-known that the Ghosn family felt that Otsuru was playing too much soft-ball with the court.

In any case, the replacement has already been named by the Ghosn camp. He’s Junichiro Hironaka. He’ll be doing a lot of reading tonight, as he prepares for tomorrow’s pre-trial pow-wow.

Hironaka is famous in Japan for having got a high-ranking civil servant off the hook on accusations of serious financial misdoings. Like Carlos Ghosn, that client denied all wrong-doing and, also like Ghosn, he spent five months in prison. Hironaka got the case thrown out before the judges got their hats on.

As Le Monde suggests, maybe Motonari Otsuru, the first guy, didn’t jump. He might have been pushed.

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