We have seen how a tiny virus, Covid 19, has impacted the world and forced billions of people to stay back home. While WHO together with world countries is fighting this virus, its sister, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) is fighting another tiny insect which is causing a problem of unprecedented proportions that can debilitate economies - The “Locust”.
In today's post we look at how these insects differ from the reasonably harmless hoppers, take a look at how the current scenario is panning out, and what can be done to help.
Locust v Grasshopper
These little insects differ from regular grasshoppers in many ways, few of which are
Reproductive capabilities: Each female locust can lay upto 300 eggs per month during its lifetime of 3 months. Due to this, the number of locusts can multiply exponentially and form groups called swarms. These swarms can be of varying sizes from one square kilometer to a couple of thousand kilometers. To give you an idea, the dimensions of the largest swarm recorded in history stands at 2900 KM long and 180 KM wide. One such single swarm can completely cover Spain
Eating Patterns: These tiny little locusts are hungry guzzlers and they devour as much as their weight in a day. A small swarm of 1 Sq KM can have 40Mn locusts each weighing 2 gms. A simple calculation tells you that they can eat 80 Tonnes in a day as much as 36,000 people in a day. To put things in perspective, a large swarm can eat as much as the state of MP in 1 day. Due to this they wreck havoc wherever they land
Flying long distances: Not only do these pests eat and mate, but also travel long distances. In favorable conditions based on the speed of the wind, they can travel upto 150 KM per day. You can imagine their potential when the same swarm can cover a couple of countries crossing oceans during their lifetime of 3-4 months. The current swarms have traveled all the way from Horn of Africa towards the East and reached India.
Due to these capabilities, these insects have been given an honorary title by FAO as the “Most Dangerous Migratory Pests”. They also have a biblical mention of locust plagues for the destruction they have caused in the past to the fields, forests, and pastures resulting in famines
How is the current situation like?
The present locust outbreak coincided with cyclones in 2018, and warm weather at the end of 2019, combined with unusually heavy rains. These changed climatic conditions have provided a perfect breeding ground for the eggs to hatch and create large swarms. These swarms were detected at the start of 2020 in Ethiopia and Somalia. From here, they spread rapidly to countries including Kenya, the Arabian peninsula, Gulf countries, Pakistan and India. Some of the current swarms in Africa are as large as 2400 Sq. KM and they are only breeding to multiply further. Currently, India’s exposure to these pests seems limited. It is only the northwestern states of Rajasthan and Gujarat—that share borders with Pakistan. more than 3,80,000 hectares of farmland have been damaged. The season’s harvest of mustard, cumin, and wheat has been consumed by the swarm. The government has allocated a compensation of 30 Cr for the impacted farmers.
What is more worrying is the fact that these locusts are most active in the monsoon and subside during winter. But, the current swarms seem very strong even during winter (Jan & Feb) and if their eggs start to hatch in the month of June when India receives monsoon, hell will fall loose on the average Indian farmer who lives hand to mouth.
Lessons from our Neighbour?
Pakistan’s main cash crop, cotton is expected to clock a 26% shortfall from the expected target. This will have an impact on the textile industry which is the largest employer in the country. Apart from this, there will be a significant deficit in the food crop production which made Pakistan announce this as a national emergency.
Citing the reasons above, it has been forecasted that the current locust attacks are expected to cause as much as a 2% decline in economic growth. Couple this with Corona, the damage can be as high as 4%. Looking at these numbers for our neighbour, the impact on our country can be equally damaging.
But how do we battle them? Can we not just use insecticides to kill them?
There are several methods to battle them. Individual farmers employ methods like the use of natural predators like birds. Recently to help Pakistan fight locusts, China has sent them an army of 1 lakh ducks. It is said that ducks can eat upto 200 locusts in a day. But this cannot alone suffice. We have been using aerial Insecticide spray to get rid of these pests. Although it kills these significantly, it also damages the crop. Once the insecticide is sprayed aerially, the crop needs to be destroyed.
There is a much more serious problem which is that the eggs are laid by the locusts in the ground up to 15-30 cms deep at any point in their flight path. Even if the pests are killed with insecticides, the eggs would hatch resulting in a multiplied larger swarm. So it is important for us to track the pests to understand the places where they lay their eggs and destroy them in the breeding ground.
Organizations have been set up for the control and study of locusts in India and other countries. Few of these include Locust Warning Organisation in India, Anti-Locust Research Centre in UK, etc. They study the migratory patterns, breeding patterns of locusts and accordingly develop strategies to eliminate them.
It is important that India takes measures to support the farmers as well as be prepared to tackle the tremors it can cause to the economy. If timely action is not taken by the government, it would result in a double whammy for the rural Indian economy in view of the slowdown caused by Covid 19.
This also calls for collaboration between nations to research and fight the locust as a whole and avoid these in the future. It's high time that we need to revisit issues like global warming, environmental issues, and other pressing problems. As a side note, these calamities should strengthen our disaster recovery policies and make our country much more resilient.