Sustainable Entomology: How Insect Scientists Can Protect Our Planet
By Ryan C. Gott, Ph.D.
“Living in the now” is passé. We have shifted focus onto benefiting our collective future. This mindset is often manifested in the term “sustainability,” broadly defined as taking thoughtful care in what we do today to avoid negatively impacting future generations.
Sustainability is entwined with the environment. Our lives are deeply rooted in natural capital: wood, water, oil, plants, animals, metals, soil. Ethical, responsible use and protection of these assets are critical to our survival. However, environmental protection cannot be the only goal. True sustainability must also harmonize with the welfare of communities and the economy. In all three of these aspects—environment, public health, and economic wealth—entomology plays an important role.
Entomologists are on the front lines of preserving so many aspects of the world. We preserve natural resources. We protect human health. We guard economic interests in food production and storage. We, perhaps most importantly, pass all this knowledge onto the public, professionals, and future entomologists. Thus we are already uniquely positioned to make significant contributions to a sustainable world.
Research to Benefit Future Generations
“Sustainable entomology” describes practicing any entomological discipline while incorporating sustainable practices and values. Sustainable entomology most obviously permeates integrated pest management (IPM). Prioritizing nonchemical controls assists with pesticide resistance management. This means pesticides for emergency situations retain efficacy further into the future. Reduction in pesticide use also protects our shared natural resources like soil, air, and water from potential unintended contamination. IPM has already produced great benefits, though it varies among situations. At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, we have reduced pesticide use by almost 75 percent since implementing IPM practices in 2008.
Other entomological fields contribute to sustainability as well. Forest entomologists work to protect our natural capital from pests and ensure its persistence into the future. Medical entomologists fight insect-borne disease, safeguarding human health in the present and eradicating or limiting pests to protect future generations. Industrial entomologists work to find cheap, renewable, insect-derived products that can replace those in current use that are unsustainable. And the exploration of edible insects could very well help in the fight against world hunger and climate change. You could easily describe sustainable benefits from every field of entomology. However, so far we discussed only the results or products of research. True sustainable entomology strives for sustainability in its processes as well.
Reductions to Your Entomology Footprint
Sustainable processes and supply chains are often neglected even when the goal is a sustainable outcome or product. This may be due to the effort it takes, like the time involved in inspecting a supply chain for sustainability throughout. Or it may be just how much simpler it is to continue with the status quo rather than alter methods and materials. But making these changes shouldn’t be intimidating: Replacing an entire lab with sustainable, bespoke beakers and locally-made lab coats isn’t the goal. Rather, small, simple changes are needed. And these changes can be pieced together over time.
Small changes in the running of a lab or facility make a big impact. Take a look at your everyday supplies. Now consider where all those disposable items end up. It’s usually the garbage and then a landfill. Can you reduce the waste produced? Are there alternative recyclable, reusable, or biodegradable products? Are there compostable items you can separate? Of course, there are many regulations regarding items that may pose risks of chemical or biological contamination, and this is certainly not a recommendation to disregard those rules. But rethinking the concept of the “disposable lab” can be impactful.
You can extend this thinking beyond disposable lab supplies. What other items are part of your daily operations, and how can you change how you engage with these items? At Phipps we rely heavily on releases of biological-control organisms in our pest management. I now do onsite rearing of beneficial insects we use to control our most common pests like green peach aphid (Aphis persicae Sulzer), potato aphid (Macrosiphum euphorbiae Thomas), longtailed mealybug (Pseudococcus longispinus Targioni Tozzetti), and citrus mealybug (Planococcus citri Risso). The simple rearing systems use little space, are cheap to maintain, and eliminate the costs of buying products and the carbon emissions associated with shipping and handling. (See photo at the top of this post.)
Behaviors can be harder to change than supplies. Consider actions in the lab or at work that ultimately have negative effects. Are lights and equipment left on or plugged in, increasing the use of electricity produced by burning fossil fuels? Consider posting reminders to shut off lights or using timers to turn off equipment. Are protocols hastily developed or performed, resulting in production of excess chemical waste? Prevention of chemical waste through thorough planning should be encouraged throughout the workplace. The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry can be helpful in decreasing your chemical waste, which is especially relevant to reagent-heavy fields such as molecular and toxicological entomology.
Entomologists already contribute much to sustainability, a fact of which we should be proud. Still, there is much more we can do. Some of it will be easy, some of it hard, and some things simply can’t be changed. But every little bit helps—even just being a vocal advocate for sustainability. By keeping sustainability in our minds and in our work, we can make a difference.
Ryan C. Gott, Ph.D., is an entomologist interested in ecotoxicology, pesticide resistance, and pest management. He is currently the Integrated Pest Management Specialist at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @Entemnein or on Instagram @ryangott.