The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that misuse of the natural world can have unforeseen consequences and that we need to take more and sustained action to prepare for the consequences.
For the fourth time this century – and we are only 20 years in – a virus thought to originate in bats has caused a major outbreak of a deadly disease – SARS, MERS, Ebola, and now SARS-CoV-2. Another species or strain of coronavirus, Ebola, or flu could cause a new pandemic at any time. As the Zika outbreak in 2015/6 showed, vector-borne diseases are also a major and ongoing threat.
Vector-borne diseases are responsible for around 17% of all infectious diseases, causing over 700,000 deaths and over 700 million infections every year. As humans encroach on wild areas, we’re inadvertently selecting new pests and pathogens that can adapt to the human environment and do us more harm.
The urbanisation of the planet and the continued advance of industrialisation are creating a global society that depends on fine balances to operate successfully and survive. A microscopic virus thought to have originated in wild bats and carried into a fresh meat market has disrupted the global economy and people’s lives for over a year.
Diseases aren’t the only threat from advancing urbanisation, however. The encroachment of land also threatens global food supply systems by making them less resilient and sustainable. Around 14% of the world’s food supplies are lost to spoilage and pests every year. Globalisation of food supplies gives pests more opportunity to infest and damage food.
Pest control is both a local and a global issue, affecting homes, businesses and communities, and also affecting the global population and global trade. While the pandemic has made people more aware of global issues, there are still a number of “traditional” problems facing the pest control sector as we look to the future. Here’s an overview of the major drivers of change in the sector.
Sustainable development goals
The UN has called for a Decade of Action to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. It has urged all sections of society to mobilise to ensure there are adequate resources, smarter solutions, regulatory frameworks, and commitments by governments, institutions, the private sector, and other stakeholders. Every business has a role to play to ensure the goals are met.
The following are of particular relevance.
• SDG 12: responsible consumption and production. This includes the aim to halve per-capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels, along supply chains, and includes production and post-harvest losses. Even in developed countries, there are significant losses and pest control has an important role to play. Reducing food losses also influences other goals such as poverty (SDG1), hunger (SDG2), and climate (SDG13), where food loss and waste generate 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
• SDG 3: good health and wellbeing. Many pests have a direct effect on health and wellbeing because they transmit diseases and affect people’s quality of life by biting, contaminating food, damaging food stocks and buildings, and the nuisance of their presence.
• SDG 11: sustainable cities and communities. Urban areas provide a haven for many types of pests – from rodents to mosquitoes, bedbugs, fleas, and other biting insects – especially densely populated and underdeveloped areas with poor sanitation and waste collection systems.
• SDG 15: life on land and SDG 14: life below water. Protecting life on land and in the water includes avoiding the use of toxic chemicals, where possible, preventing environmental pollution, preventing the poisoning of non-target species, good waste management, and implementing a sustainability policy across a business to protect global ecosystems for the long term.
While the world’s focus has been on the COVID-19 pandemic, mosquitoes have carried on infecting people worldwide. Mosquitoes are the most widespread pest and are responsible for more illness and deaths than any other vector. They have a significant impact on economic development in many countries. COVID lockdowns have disrupted mosquito-borne disease eradication programs, especially for malaria, and put back previous gains by years. WHO has called on countries and global partners to increase efforts to eradicate malaria and for better targeting of interventions, new tools, and increased funding.
Climate change is having a slow but sure impact on pests that live and breed mainly outdoors. Global warming is changing the survival and breeding zones of many pests, creating new challenges for pest control. It’s allowing many insect pests, especially, to move from tropical and subtropical zones into temperate regions and temperate zone insects to move farther north.
Wild rodents have longer breeding seasons and increased rain can result in greater food supplies and rodent populations – such as gerbils in central Asia that carry the plague. Ticks are spreading northwards in many countries. They can transmit bacterial, viral, and protozoan diseases such as Lyme disease and Anaplasmosis. Some tick species depend on rodents for their lifecycle, so as the rodents migrate north, so can the ticks. Several Aedes mosquito species, which can transmit diseases such as dengue, Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever, are invading subtropical and temperate zones.
As rainfall patterns change, breeding times and areas also change. This could help eradicate mosquitoes in drier areas and introduce them or exacerbate the problem in others.
On a practical level, businesses can implement a broad range of measures to improve sustainability, not just for achieving the SDGs, but because it makes business sense in the long term. The world is fast reaching a tipping point for climate, ecosystems, food production systems, and resources, which necessitates radical change in thinking about business policies and practices.
Businesses can introduce sustainable practices throughout their operations, including:
• low and zero-emission transport
• reducing energy use and increasing use of renewable energy
• reducing waste
• reducing use of plastics
• increasing the use of renewable, compostable, and recyclable materials
• reducing and replacing toxic chemicals
• using non-toxic pest control solutions, wherever possible
• investing in research and development to keep pest control solutions ahead of the pests’ ability to adapt to and avoid pest control measures
There are many non-toxic solutions for controlling pests, such as proofing measures, heat treatments, LED insect light traps, and smart technology for remote monitoring and control. Technological solutions that have not traditionally been associated with pest control include artificial intelligence, computer modeling, and the vast scope of biotechnology, such as biopesticides, sterile insects, and genetically modified organisms. Naturally, Rentokil is at the forefront in developing sustainable and effective non-toxic solutions and is continually developing its use of algorithms, mining of big-data analytics, and other technologies for its digital pest management.
Legislation and resistance
Working in parallel with drivers for sustainability is legislation to protect human health, non-target wildlife, and the environment, which has steadily reduced the number of pesticides available for pest control. Pest resistance is another factor that has been reducing the effectiveness of pesticides. This has been recognised for over 100 years and has been driving ongoing research to develop new products long before environmental problems were even noticed.
In 1976, pesticide resistance was recorded in 364 insect species and reached 500 by the year 2000. Each generation of pesticides has brought hope that resistance could be avoided, but it has never happened. It takes around ten years to develop resistance to a new type of pesticide, depending on pest species. Sometimes, a gene that gives resistance to one pesticide can confer resistance to another, such as DDT and pyrethroids.
Both first and second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides have long been detected in non-target wildlife species that prey on rodents – even bald eagles that were rescued from the brink of extinction following exposure to DDT. Now, there’s also a consideration for the inhumane effects of anticoagulant rodenticides on rodents. Anticoagulants are not a sustainable solution for pest control. The US National Research Council concluded, however, that chemical pesticides will continue to have a role for the foreseeable future because of both the development of reduced-risk products and the lack of viable alternatives for some uses.
The future is sustainable
Sustainability is the main driver of change in pest control. It has a direct influence in driving the development of products and technology used for pest control to be both more effective and have a minimal effect on the environment. It has an indirect influence on the whole business needing to help achieve the targets of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
This is not just an ethical issue; increasingly strict legislation and public pressure are slowly removing the option of non-sustainable solutions.
The key to effective and sustainable pest control will be novel solutions that avoid toxic chemicals and outsmart the pests, whether it’s the individual intelligence of rodents or “collective intelligence” of mass populations of insects that can avoid control by behavioural or genetic selection. Only those businesses that are agile and innovative will succeed.