By Maneka Gandhi
What will we do when the locusts come again?
Locusts are a group of short-horned grasshoppers that migrate long distances in swarms, crossing over many countries. They devour leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, bark, and destroy plants by their sheer weight as they descend on them in massive numbers.
Four species of locusts are found in India: Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), Migratory locust (Locusta migratoria), Bombay Locust (Nomadacris succincta) and Tree locust (Anacridium sp.).
The desert locust is regarded as the most destructive pest in the world. Adult locust swarms can fly up to 150 km a day with the wind and adult insects can consume roughly their own weight in fresh food per day.
The rains in Iran and Yemen were heavy last year, and millions of insects were born and flew from these countries over Saudi Arabia, landing in the eastern region of Pakistan in February, destroying the crops of cotton, wheat and maize. Their flying army was so large and so rapacious that Pakistan declared a national emergency. Crops were sprayed from the air and the armed forces and district administrations pressed into service. From there they came into India: Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab.
At the same time, locusts were decimating crops, trees and pastureland in East Africa. A 2,400 square kilometre swarm of 360 billion insects was measured in Kenya in January, large enough to consume as much food in a single day as 85 million people. Somalia declared a national emergency. The UN warned that the locust attack on Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia would result in a humanitarian crisis – meaning that everyone in the country would again have to be fed by world aid. Fourteen countries were affected. While UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has described the 2019-2020 locust attack as the worst in Kenya in 70 years, they are expecting it to be worse in 2021 and every year after that.
Dozens of countries have been hit. Sardinia, a little Italian island, has had its worst disaster in 60 years. The crop of 2019-20 is almost all gone and what is left are carpets of locusts: the reason is the unseasonal rains of 2018. Bolivia in Latin America has declared a state of emergency in response to a locust plague that is destroying crops of corn, sorghum, beans and pastures.
The outbreak in India started in mid-2019. The locusts came for the rapeseed and cumin crops. We claimed that we brought them under control, but then we claim success in every field all the time. The truth was that thousands of acres (over 3,60,000 in Rajasthan alone) were decimated. They came in waves again in December to February, the worst attack we have ever had. Fields of mustard, cumin and wheat were devastated in the two states.
In India, the extended monsoon provided a favourable environment for the locusts to multiply. Each locust lays about 150 eggs in moist soil. Experts are expecting a huge increase when the next generation hatches in June. A million locusts can eat the food of 35,000 people in one day. When they destroy the pastureland, the animals grown for meat and milk also starve. For countries and tribes that depend on livestock, the effect is as devastating. In a few hours, a farm growing vegetables and grain becomes a desert.
Why are the locusts thriving? About 93% of the heat generated from global warming has been absorbed by the oceans and, according to the Journal of Climate, the western part of the Indian Ocean has heated faster than any other part of the tropical oceans. Called the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), the waters closest to Africa are warmer than those near Australia. The warm moist air blowing westwards brings rain to East Africa and drought to Australia. Australia is now ravaged with fires and dust storms, while countries such as Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia have moved from droughts to floods, and this wetness is hospitable to desert locusts. It increases the amount of vegetation that swarms feed on and moistens the soil, improving breeding conditions for locusts, who avoid laying eggs in dry soil.
Are any scientists in India working on a sustainable way to get rid of them when they come? Unchecked locust plagues will take years to control and at a cost of hundreds of crores, threaten hunger, particularly in regions struggling with food security.
Who can fight a plague of locusts? How do you chase them away? With torches of fire? Shooting in the air, waving sticks, banging cans and running around? Small planes spraying pesticide? I think not. You may drive the locusts away but the crop is poisoned. The Government of India deploys teams to control locust swarms, which spray deadly organophosphate chemicals in small, concentrated doses. This will continue to kill people long after the locusts have been killed.
India has a locust department in the agriculture ministry of each state. But, since the last locust attack was a small one in 1993, the department is more flabby and idle than most. What have the officials of this department done in the last 25 years: gone on international jaunts to discuss the potential danger of locust invasions! What did they do when an invasion really happened? Leave it to the farmers to bang utensils to scare them away. Oh, yes … spray the most poisonous chemicals known to man – and, of course, blame Pakistan saying it failed to conduct control operations successfully.
There have to be some sensible ways to protect this country.
All locust-affected countries transmit data about attacks to the FAO, which analyses the data and weather patterns and provides forecasts for locust attacks up to six weeks in advance to each country. So, there is time for the country to take precautions.
What can the government and farmers do when the locusts come again?
Here are two solutions from Padma Shri awardee Chintala Venkata Reddy, an organic farmer from Telangana:
1. Spraying a concoction of linseed oil, edible soda/sodium bicarbonate and extracts of garlic, cumin and orange. This mixture has no side effects on crops.
2. Take 30-40 kg of sub-soil, from four feet below the earth, and dissolve it in 200 litres of water and allow it to rest for 10-20 minutes. The sieved water should be then filtered and sprayed on the crops. This will make all the vegetation inedible for locusts. This sand-water can be sprayed with a normal spray pump. After the locust threat is over, spraying the crop with plain water will remove the sand layer from the leaves.
3. Chris Adriaansen, director of the Australian Plague Locust Commission, has suggested a biological agent, based on a naturally occurring fungus in 1976. It is based on the spores of the metarhizium fungus. Once sprayed onto locusts it attaches and germinates, stopping the insects from feeding and reproducing.
Green Muscle is a bio-pesticide developed by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture’s biological control centre in Benin. It contains spores of the naturally occurring fungus Metarhizium anisopliae var. acridum, which destroys the locust’s tissues from the inside. The fungus has no effect on other life forms.
4. Locusts are attracted to green colours. Covering crops with mesh of a different colour might help smaller farmers.
5. Research at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), in Nairobi, has identified and synthesized a specific locust pheromone, or chemical signal, that can be used against young locusts.
6. A team of German researchers, headed by Frithjof Voss, has devised an electrical grid powered by a portable generator, run by a 12-volt solar cell powered battery, to frighten off locusts. At the heart of the grid is a four-meter long by half-a-meter high net which is dragged manually across the field. Vibrations created by the wire net frighten off the insects, and those which come too close are immediately electrocuted. This technology is much safer for the environment than pesticides. There is only a one-time cost with the initial purchase of the equipment. The grid can be used by individual farmers, who can install it across their fields whenever necessary.
7. The first and most important activity is to locate and destroy the locusts’ eggs in an organised manner, by ploughing, harrowing and digging. Digging 2′ x 2′ trenches around egg-laid areas will help entrap the nymphs, which are the flightless young of the locusts. As they move out after hatching, they are buried. Another is to keep ducks to control locust infestations. Each duck can eat as many as 200 locusts per day.
Since we receive information well in time about locust swarms – unlike demonetisation and lockdowns – it is possible to take action, like arranging for noise, placing 50-foot high traps in the way of the swarm, or scattering the swarms by flying airplanes through them.
No one in the Indian government is still taking climate change seriously. Lip service at conferences by politicians and bureaucrats, a few attempts at solar energy generation. That’s it. But our methane production has increased – more cattle being grown for milk and meat and export. More coal is being used for electricity, more rice production. Methane is 24 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide.
Extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, droughts, cyclones and floods, are set to become stronger without sharp cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. So the skies will blacken and the locusts will come.
The Bible warns that the end of the world, or the apocalypse, will be heralded by fires, floods and locusts.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)