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Over 2.5 billion smallholders cultivate the world’s arable land, strategically positioned to tackle multiple Anthropocene challenges. When consciously adopting ecologically-based pest management practices, they can improve resource use efficiency, slow biodiversity loss, resolve environmental pollution and safeguard human health. Yet, the effective implementation of knowledge-intensive management practices requires underlying ecological concepts to be well-understood. Here, drawing upon published social science research spanning 1910-2016, we illuminate deficiencies in the world’s farmers’ ecological literacy and in their valuation of insect-mediated ecosystem services. Though tribal people and indigenous folk possess sophisticated knowledge of insects that occur within farm settings, contemporary farmers know a mere 2.0 pestiferous herbivores and 0.8 pest-killing organisms (out of a respective 8 and 3 taxa). Ecosystem services such as biological control are annually worth hundreds of dollars ha-1 but remain unknown to nearly 70% of farmers globally. Also, agricultural systems with deficient ecological literacy tend to foster a greater dependency upon chemically-synthesized pesticides. If this ‘cognitive handicap’ can be remediated, farmers could become biodiversity stewards and champions in redressing multiple aspects of global environmental change.