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As Industrial Farming Exploded Over the Past Century, the Netherlands' Butterfly Population Plummeted 84%

"These are butterflies, which are easy to see, but this will also be happening to all kinds of other insects and animal life."


New research shows that from 1890 to 2017, the Netherland's butterfly numbers declined by at least 84 percent. (Photo: Dutch Butterfly Conservation/Instagram)

Bolstering global concerns about declining biodiversity, a new study shows that as industrial farming has expanded in the Netherlands over the past century, the nation's butterfly population has plummeted by at least 84 percent, and 15 native species are now extinct.

The analysis of 71 butterfly species native to the northwestern European country was conducted by Statistics Netherlands and the Dutch Butterfly Conservation, and published Friday in the journal Biological Conservation.

The results of the study are "more evidence of the catastrophic declines insects [and] other invertebrates are suffering globally," Chris Cathrine, director of U.K.-based ecological consulting firm Caledonian Conservation Ltd, said on Twitter.

"These largely ignored animals are the foundations of the ecosystems we all depend on to live," Cathrine added.

Researchers examined butterflies caught between 1890 and 1980 along with scientific data from sightings over the past few decades, up until 2017.

Noting that early collectors of butterflies didn't seek out common species, study coauthor Chris van Swaay of the Dutch Butterfly Conservation told the Guardian that "we are quite sure that the real decline must be much larger."

Distribution of butterfly species

As Van Swaay explained to the newspaper, experts believe a key driver of the regional decline has been industrial farming across the lowlands of western Europe:

Before 1950 or so, grasslands in the Netherlands very much resembled what we now only have left in some nature reserves—they were wet, they had lots of flowers, were lightly grazed, and mown only once or twice a year. This was very low-intensity farming.

In two decades after the 1950s, the countryside was rebuilt—land was drained and planted with one species of grass, large amounts of fertilizer was put on the land, and it was mown six times a year. There is no room for butterflies except on road verges and nature reserves. The countryside is more or less empty.


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The Netherlands has received some positive attention for high-tech farming that has cut down on carbon emissions as well as the use fertilizer and pesticides. A 2017 National Geographic article declared, "The Netherlands has become an agricultural giant by showing what the future of farming could look like."

However, some agro-environmental scientists from the country have argued that "Dutch agriculture is not a beacon of good farming practice to the world," and significant reforms are needed for the sake of biodiversity, public health, and the environment.

The new findings on the country's butterfly numbers, Van Swaay said, shows that "industrial agriculture is simply leaving hardly any room for nature."

"It's also happening to farmland birds who eat insects. It goes all the way up the chain from insects to birds to predators."
—Chris van Swaay, Dutch Butterfly Conservation

"These are butterflies, which are easy to see, but this will also be happening to all kinds of other insects and animal life in the soil," he warned. "It's also happening to farmland birds who eat insects. It goes all the way up the chain from insects to birds to predators."

Van Swaay's warning echoes other recent research that has highlighted how unsustainable practices and the climate crisis negatively impact the world's plant and animal species.

A study of German nature reserves from 2017 found that populations of flying insects fell more than 75 percent over 27 years, eliciting fears of a potential "ecological Armageddon." A broader analysis from last year raised concerns about the global climate-driven "bugpocalypse." One expert called it "one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read."

As Common Dreams reported in February, another recent paper cautioned that industrial farming, the climate crisis, and urbanization are causing massive declines of insect populations—and without urgent, systemic changes, the world could soon see a "catastrophic collapse of nature's ecosystems."

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