Is a famine also on the cards in 2020?
Shabbir Ahmad
Still reeling under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, another severe crisis is staring at Pakistan. This crisis will not only affect economy but also impact the food security. After creating havoc in Africa, locusts have entered South Asia and now threatening to cause massive crop loss and food shortages in the region. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that Pakistan may incur losses as high as $2.2 billion to agriculture from locusts this year to winter crops and nearly $2.89 billion for summer crops. This will be economically devastating for Pakistan where agriculture accounts for almost 20% of GDP. The country is already suffering from crippling inflation, and the unprecedented economic burden imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Currently Pakistan is facing the worst locust invasion in decades, with more waves expected in coming days, causing fears of long-term food shortages. Locusts move in swarms of up to 50 million. Their strength is in numbers. The desert locust, a voracious grasshopper wreaking havoc across swathes around the world takes the saying to new levels. It can eat its own body weight in food and fly over 150 km in a day. If the conditions are right, millions of locusts gather into swarms the size of cities that can devour tonnes of food in a day. According to UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates, a swarm the size of Paris can eat the same amount of food in a day as half the population of France. Another such estimate tells us that one square kilometre swarm eats the same amount as 35,000 people.
Study of literature shows the pervasiveness of locust plagues over the course of history. The insects arrived unexpectedly, often after a change of wind direction or weather, and the consequences were devastating. During the last millennium, locust plagues continued to appear at irregular intervals with the main recorded outbreaks of the desert and migratory locusts occurring around the world. For instance, the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon, partly caused by swarm of locusts, was a period of mass starvation during 1910s. The invasion continued for three months devouring most of the crops which lead to the death of half of the population of Mount Lebanon Mustasarrifate, modern day Lebanon.
While the rabi crops, recently harvested, survived the onslaught, the locusts can take a heavy toll on Pakistan’s kharif produce if not controlled by the time the harvest season arrives. It’s a grave prospect for farmers already struggling to shake off the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown.
So, how to avert the looming risk of a famine? The answer is to get rid of the locusts. Early intervention is a more successful means of dealing with locusts than later action when swarms have already built up. If early detected, we can put it out like a small campfire. But if we can’t detect and eliminate it early, it will grow exponentially and may only stop when the swarm runs out of food. Monitoring is the key to reducing damage, with the early detection and eradication of bands being the objective. Ideally, a sufficient proportion of nomadic bands can be treated with insecticide before the swarming phase is reached. Most of the affected areas have already passed the early stage. So, we need to do something about the swarms.
The most commonly used control method is pesticide spray. Showered onto the pests via hand pumps, land vehicles or aircraft, whole swarms can be targeted and killed with chemicals in a relatively short period of time. Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is already carrying out aerial pesticide spraying campaigns. But using huge quantities of chemicals on crops is detrimental to the environment and human health. If the pesticides aren’t sprayed precisely, other insects in the environment become collateral damage.
There is ongoing research into more environment-friendly solutions, such as biological pesticides or introducing natural predators. The recent development of effective oil formulations of fungus spores (Metarhizium anisopliae) in Australia, and Brazil opens new possibilities for environmentally safe control operations. China has used ducks and chickens to control locusts. A Chinese official has said that one duck can eat over 200 locusts per day.
An innovative solution was coined by Muhammad Khurshid, a civil servant of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, and Johar Ali, a biotechnologist from the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council. It offers a sustainable solution in which farmers earn money by trapping locusts that are turned into high-protein chicken feed by animal feed mills. It is a rich source of protein in comparison to Soya which is the existing protein source in poultry feed. Replacing Soya with locusts can also reduce the country’s import bill since Soya is an imported commodity. This solution has also been hailed in India and Bangladesh and they are planning to employ it in their locusts affected areas.
The World Bank has warned that without appropriate action, the locust population can grow 400 times larger within next few weeks which will disrupt food supply to millions of people. To avoid a major catastrophe, the government needs to take this issue seriously and support farmers in control this menace.