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Silent Autumns: Pesticides Push Japan’s Iconic Red Dragonfly to Extinction

Autumn darter dragonfly, photo by Ryo Futahashi

SNA (Saitama) — The mesmerizing sight of the aki-akane, meaning ‘autumn red’ dragonfly, is a traditional symbol of autumn in Japan’s rice farming landscape. However, the species has been rapidly disappearing in recent years and has now nearly vanished over most of Japan. The reason, according to scientists, is the increased use in rice farming of a class of broad-spectrum insecticides that have been the subject of bans in the European Union and China.

The chemicals, which are still legal in Japan, act as nerve agents on a wide range of insects in a similar way to human nerve agents like Novichok which are banned in warfare. Lethal in trace amounts, they persist in the soil of rice paddy fields long after application, sterilizing it of insect life.

A 2012 paper by dragonfly expert Tetsuyuki Ueda of Ishikawa Prefectural University says that in over half of Japanese prefectures, red dragonfly numbers had dropped by over 99%, to one-thousandth of their former population. Experiments by Ueda and other researchers have shown that the reason is a range of broad-spectrum pesticides including fipronil, sold by German chemical company BASF, and neonicotinoid pesticides such as Admire, sold by Bayer, another German multinational.

Ueda describes how in Ishikawa Prefecture the ‘autumn darter’ dragonfly, as it is called in English, migrates to highlands over 1,000 meters in the summer where it feeds on smaller insects and acquires its distinctive red color. It then returns to rice paddy fields at lower elevation in the autumn. The flooded rice paddy fields are the habitat for its larvae, dragonfly nymphs, but experiments by Ueda and others have shown that the pesticides stop the aquatic nymphs from metamorphosing into adult dragonflies. With their brilliant color and special place in Japanese tradition and culture, the autumn red dragonfly is an indicator species for aquatic insects of rice paddies.

The most dangerous of these insecticides is considered to be fipronil, sold in Japan under the brandname Prince by German chemical giant BASF. Fipronil was recently banned for agricultural use in China, but a ban in the European Union was annulled by the European Court of Justice in 2018 as an impact assessment had not been carried out. However according to Ueda and other scientists, no adult dragonflies emerge from rice fields treated with fipronil. In addition, after fipronil use is discontinued it can take several years for dragonflies to start to recover. BASF’s Tokyo office said by email that “BASF is committed to only offering products which help farmers grow more nutritious, high-quality food – while ensuring the protection of human and animal health and the environment.” They added that fipronil has passed toxicity tests required by the Japanese government, and that other countries continue to allow its use based on evaluations of its safety when used as directed.

The insecticide Admire is used in Japan for application on rice seedlings to kill bright green stinkbugs that are a part of the rice-paddy ecosystem. Admire contains imidacloprid, a chemical now illegal in the European Union due to killing honeybees and other pollinating insects. Ueda’s 2012 report states that Admire reduces the number of dragonfly nymphs reaching adulthood to 30% compared to when it is not used. Another 2015 study by Japanese scientists confirms this, saying that imidacloprid is particularly harmful to aquatic insects, including dragonfly nymphs, and stays in the soil of rice paddy fields for months.

Both BASF and Bayer strongly opposed the European Union ban, with Bayer calling it on its website a “bad deal for the European agricultural sector and the environment, and one that will not improve the lot of bees or other pollinators.” Regarding the loss of autumn darter dragonflies, Bayer’s Tokyo office said by email that the safety of their products is evaluated using international studies and that their products cause no undue harm to the environment if used according to the instructions.

In 2017, before the European Union ban, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations recommended that the government declare a temporary ban on neonicotinoids and fipronil, and also recommended removing stink bugs from listing as harmful insects. However, the Japanese government does not appear to be responding, according to Jun Hoshikawa, director of Act Beyond Trust, a Tokyo NGO which recently organized a symposium in Tokyo to inform the public about the negative effects of these pesticides.

Hoshikawa said by email that a moratorium is not being considered by the Japanese government and their use is continuing to be actively promoted by agricultural cooperatives. He said the government’s process of granting permission to companies to sell pesticides is controlled by the companies themselves. There is almost no scrutiny as evidence is only provided by the companies after that, “The chemical companies have free hand to determine how and how much the chemicals should be used in the farmland.”

Dragonfly expert Ryo Futahashi of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology said by email that “in Toyama Prefecture there is a correlation between the sharp decline of red dragonflies and the use of fipronil.” He added that there has been some recovery since 2010, probably due to a decline in fipronil use since then. However, observations by one local NGO of this conspicuous insect indicate that there may not be a recovery as of yet. The May 2019 newsletter of the Saitama Ecosystem Conservation Society says that whereas older people remember large numbers of red dragonflies flying over rice fields in autumn, now they have mostly disappeared.

In his 2012 report, Tetsuyuki Ueda compares the situation to the Silent Spring without birds envisaged by Rachel Carson in her famous book about the effects of DDT, another broad spectrum pesticide. He says that Japan faces a future of silent autumns without the hum of dragonfly wings, and over much of Japan this future has already arrived. The crimson autumn darter dragonfly has mostly vanished, and the words of a well-known children’s song about remembering dragonflies in one’s home village will have no resonance for future generations.

Little red dragonfly
Resting, waiting
On the end of a bamboo pole

Can the situation be reversed? If the Japanese government is unwilling to follow the bans in other countries on these insecticides, then the future seems to depend on the boardrooms of transnational chemical companies stopping their denial of the devastation that scientists say their products are causing, and voluntarily removing them from sale.

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