Locust: A pest to fear

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Locust, a paperclip size insect causes detrimental damage to agriculture and threatens food security.

With Nearly 12.1 MILLION CASES AND OVER 5 lakhs deaths globally in the span of a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated health systems and economies. During these challenging times, how Indian agriculture performs and how the government measures help to boost the sector and secure the life of 140 million farm households still remains a looming question. Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 42.38 percent of India’s population and the effect of the pandemic on it has been tremendous. To add to the woes of the farmers, locust swarm attacks caused the biggest problem.

The pest:

Locust, Schistocerca gregaria: A migratory pest, looks like an ordinary grasshopper with big back legs that can cause massive damage to crops. . A 1 square kilometer swarm contains about 40 million locusts and it can consume the same food as about 35000 people. In 2020 locusts entered India on around April 11, a month before the usual arrival which caused damage to mango green gram and black gram and it can cause future damage to Kharif crops like maize, millets, beans.

The ideal temperature for this insect to lay eggs is around 35 degree and they lay 80-90 eggs each time. Each female locust would lay eggs for 3-4 times. From the eggs, flightless hoppers hatch and they can go upto 10 meters in a minute. In 6 weeks they grow into adult locust which can fly and in one single day they can cover distance upto 5-130km. They ideally fly after the sunrise and settle down before the sunset.

Does locust attack happen every year? Why did the locust attack of 2020 stand out?

Locust attack is not an uncommon phenomenon. It occurs every year from June to November in West Rajasthan, Gujrat in isolated groups. There are several reasons for the locust attack of 2020 to be deadlier than before; the prolonged monsoon of 2019 being one of them.

  • The outbreak started after the warm waters occurred in the Western Indian Ocean in late 2019. This caused substantial amounts of rain in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. This warm water resulted in Indian Nino which made western part warmer and eastern part colder that increased the number of storms and rains. This is known to might have triggered the locust outbreak.

  • Similarly, pre-monsoon rains during March to May over India was in excess in the northern part of India largely due to the western disturbances which triggered the growth of vegetation in arid areas.

  • If we go back to 2018, heavy rain in Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa created a favorable breeding ground for locusts. A female locust can lay 80-90 eggs during one breeding cycle and three generations of exponential breeding caused locust outburst that resulted in massive damage in Africa, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India.

  • The ordinary rains in the Thar Desert also proved favorable for locusts to breed. According to the FAO, spring breeding continues in Iran, and Pakistan and summer breeding has commenced across both sides of the India-Pakistan border which can cause another attack in the future.

(Source: United Nations)

How did the government respond to the outbreak ?

While India scuffled with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Locust Warning Organization issued a warning for the deadliest locust attack. To tackle that situation, the Central government ordered 60 sprayers from the United States and allowed the deployment of drones to control locust swarms. Around 1, 55,000 hectares area across the states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujrat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh has undergone control operations.

The Union Government is coordinating with the state governments to control the locust by using an integrated method deploying 89 fire brigades for pesticide spray, 120 survey vehicles, 47 control vehicles with spray equipment, 810 tractors mounted sprayers and more than 200 locust circle officers. Temporary camps are engaged to conduct surveys and control operations. Also, the government has ordered for the procurement of additional 55 vehicles and bought an adequate stock of Malathion. The use of a bell helicopter and Mig-21 showed some relief in locust control.

With this there has been certain other agricultural support such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has issued guidelines for farmers and farming sectors to combat COVID-19 and suggests measures for the harvesting threshing, post-harvest storage, and marketing for the Rabi crops. Lastly, to revive the agriculture, the Central government made some reforms by amending essential commodities act (1955), enabling the national market for the farmers beyond the APMC mandi and creating a legal framework for contract farming. (Read about the latest APMC reforms)

Was it enough? What many farmers did and are advised to do?

As the pandemic and locust attack throw challenges, an integrated approach needs to be followed to control these dual situations. Every disaster always creates problems for the poor. In India, there are 86.2% small and marginal farmers, among them, many are landless and facing severe problems due to this pandemic and locust attack was accelerating the difficulties. Due to the insect's high rate of destruction, the farmers did suffer.

It is advisable to attack the swarming population during the time they are laying eggs and to destroy the breeding areas or to attack when they are flightless. When they are able to fly, they have a period of settling down on ground which is the time to apply the pest control techniques. Amongst other techniques creating loud noises, igniting fires and covering the crops were used.

Disrupted supply chain

The supply chain got disrupted due to COVID -19 outbreak. The traffics movement was slow due to lockdown that is why the farm economy slows a drip. The Rabi crops like Gram lentil mustard were at harvest stage or almost maturity, but national wide lockdown cause supply chain disruption cause heave damage to the fruits, dairy, and other perishable products. As pandemic started to tighten its grip on the economy, this locusts attack caused overall damage for the farming sector.

But in India, as all the Rabi crops were harvested before this attack, so the effect on the Indian farming system was comparatively less. Aggregated approach by central and state helped to control the locust swarm to certain extent and it shows a relief before the Kharif season. Else India can face a whopping loss of 8000 crores and it can push to scarcity of agricultural produce. According to the Indian Meteorological Department, the southwest monsoon from June to September over India may be normal which can help to destroy the locust eggs and the chance for the second massive attack will be lowered.

Climate Change & A way forward

Necessary qualitative and quantitative measures need to be taken to control future attacks of locusts. States also need to work swiftly to procure the perishable fruits and crops and reduce the wastage loss.

Climate change poses the biggest threat and locust attacks in the future can be predictable. But integrated pest management needs to be followed to control the swarm. Excess use of pesticides to control those pests can also cause after-effects like food toxicity, killing off beneficial organisms, and soil toxicity which can possess long term threats. Hence, an environment-friendly approach is to use those locusts as chicken feed which can help to boost the poultry sector and reduce feed cost as it can act as a good source of protein.

A laboratory approach is showing useful by blocking the Serotonin, a happy hormone, which transforms desert locusts from solitary, tame bugs into gregarious. But large-scale application and benefits are yet to be seen.

At last, new innovative ways need to evolve to control the locusts that can cut down farmer's loss and helps transform the whole Agri-based ecosystem. Technology can help in a greater way by giving early warnings and using drones can help to prevent the swarms on a small scale. If those natural attacks can be predicted fast by technological advancements and swift measures can reduce the overall loss to an extent. However, that's a long term solution and it will take time for the technology to develop as we might see such attacks with the changing climate structure. In the meanwhile, government and institutions can be as supportive in terms of covering losses and making the farmers aware, equipped & strong to fight such attacks.

Remembering the words of John F. Kennedy, “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways” , the revival of Indian economy rests upon the revival of the farmers.

- Abhishek Betal

About the Author:

Abhishek is an Agri-graduate from Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, a student of the Institute of Rural management and the founder of Agro-ho (Mushroom production).