Pakistani scientists have successfully tried a simple solution to turn the pests into protein and income amid the worst swarms for decades. As the biggest locust swarms for more than 25 years threaten India and Pakistan’s breadbasket regions, a pilot project in Pakistan offers a way to cull the crop-destroying pests without using insecticides that harm people and the environment.
Huge swarms darkened the sky in Jaipur in recent days; one resident of Rajasthan’s biggest city said it was like being “overtaken by aliens,” the New York Times reported. However, the biggest threat is to farmers and poor rural communities already hit hard economically by Covid-19.
Pakistan’s eastern provinces were first overwhelmed in the winter. Fresh swarms are just beginning to take to the air and are expected to grow until mid-summer. Pakistan’s government approved a National Action Plan for locust control in February and airborne spraying of some 300,000 litres of insecticide is taking place.
Climate change has played a role in the locust plague. It started after exceptional cyclonic rainfall moistened the “Empty Quarter” deserts of Saudi Arabia in 2019. Biblical quantities of locusts hatched and have been breeding ever since. The swarms were swept eastwards through Iran to Pakistan by seasonal winds. After breeding in Pakistan’s eastern deserts, the locusts took to the air again in late winter. Now, another generation has hatched and crossed into India.
“Towards the end of May and in June and July, high level migration is expected,” warns Tariq Khan, director of the Technical Department of Plant Protection in Pakistan’s Sindh province.
Farmer Ghulam Sarwar Panhwar saw millions of the pests devour his cotton and moringa crops in just a few hours. “This was their second attack this month. With locusts attacking our crops during the day, bats attacking our mango orchards at night and coronavirus attacking us in our homes day and night, where do we go?” asks Panhwar, who owns two farms totalling 300 acres in the Hyderabad district of Sindh.
The pesticides used by the government are carcinogenic to humans and poisonous to wildlife, warns Sohail Ahmed, an animal biologist at the University of Agriculture in Peshawar. “No bio-safe pesticide is being used at the moment. These chemical sprays are toxic for the environment and will affect humans, wildlife and livestock.”
Farmers in Sindh, Balochistan and parts of Punjab near Pakistan’s desert regions have already noticed changes. “Already the parrots have died out due to the pesticides used in fruit orchards. I’ve noticed that the crows that used to eat the locusts have stopped coming,” says Panhwar, who fears the impact on the water supply, soil and crops.
With the locust problem escalating, an innovative pilot project in Pakistan’s Okara district 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 was the brainchild of Muhammad Khurshid, a civil servant in the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, and Johar Ali, a biotechnologist from the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.
“We were mocked for doing this – no one thought that people could actually catch locusts and sell them,” says Ali.
Khurshid says they were inspired by an example in Yemen in May 2019. The motto in that war-torn country facing famine was, “Eat the locusts before they eat the crop.”
They selected Okara district, as it is a heavily populated rural area of Pakistan’s Punjab. They set up a three-day trial project in the Pepli Pahar Forest in Depalpur, where huge swarms of adult locusts were reported in mid-February 2020. The forest area was chosen as it was less likely to be contaminated by an insecticide.
Using the slogan, “Catch locusts. Earn money. Save crops”, the project offered to pay farmers 20 Pakistani rupees (USD 0.12) per kilogram of locusts.
Locusts only fly in daylight. At night, they cluster on trees and open ground without dense vegetation and remain almost motionless till sunrise the next day. Locusts are easy to catch at night, Khurshid says.
The community’s locust haul averaged seven tonnes a night. The project team weighed the locusts and sold them to nearby plants making chicken feed. Farmers netted up to 20,000 Pakistani rupees (USD 125) per person for one night’s work.
“On the first day in the field we had to send the word out and around 10-15 people showed up,” says Ali. But word of the money to be made spread quickly, and hundreds of people showed up by the third day. “We did not even have to provide them with bags, they brought their own on their motorbikes. All we did was to weigh the bags and check that they were indeed full of locusts, and then pay them for their efforts.”
Muhammad Athar, the general manager Hi-Tech Feeds (within the Hi-Tech Group, one of Pakistan’s biggest poultry breeders and animal feed makers), says his firm fed the bug-based feed to its broiler chickens in a five-week study. “All nutritional aspects came out positive – there was no issue with the feed made from these locusts. If we can capture the locusts without spraying on them, their biological value is high and they have good potential for use in fish, poultry and even dairy feed,” he says.
There are an estimated 1.5 billion chickens being raised in Pakistan plus innumerable fish farms – all of which could potentially buy high protein locust meal.
“We currently import 300,000 tonnes of soya bean and after extracting the oil for sale, we use the soya bean crush to use in animal feed. Soya bean has 45% protein whereas locusts have 70% protein. Soya bean meal is 90 Pakistani rupees per kilogram (USD 0.5), whereas locusts are free – the only cost is capturing them and drying them so they can be sold as a useable product,” says Athar.
The processing cost of drying and milling locusts is only 30 Pakistani rupees per kg (USD 0.19). As Pakistan imports soya beans, he sees substantial potential savings in foreign exchange costs too.
Right after the pilot study, the coronavirus pandemic forced Khurshid and Ali to put any further moves to scale up the project on hold, despite interest from large-scale commercial operators.
Now that the lockdown has been eased in Pakistan, Ali says they can start again. All that is needed is for the local community to collect the locusts and sell them. “There are so many jobless people because of the pandemic. They can all be put to work collecting the locusts and selling them,” he says. Furthermore, rice-milling firms now have spare summer capacity, as rice is usually milled in winter.
“It’s an out-of-box solution – it could easily be scaled up in our populated rural areas. Yes, in our desert areas where locusts breed chemical sprays make sense but not in areas where we have farms with crops and livestock and people,” says Ali.
“It’s a very good idea – the only missing part is the buy-back mechanism,” says Khan, who heads Sindh’s Technical Department of Plant Protection. “Who will pay the local community for the locusts they collect? The animal feed industry needs to get involved.”
Khan cautions that while harvesting locusts suits populated farming areas, “In large desert areas we have to rely on chemical sprays.” He expects the swarms to carry on multiplying till November and believes an integrated approach is necessary.
“Since 1993 when the last large swarms of locusts arrived in Pakistan, the country has largely seen a dry spell. Locusts need soil moisture in the desert to thrive,” he says.
Since arriving from Yemen, the locusts have bred for three generations without a pause. They flew across to Balochistan in 2019 and started breeding there. They entered Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the last winter/spring breeding season. According to Khan, the second breeding season that will last from May to November has started.
Pakistan’s official locust action plan funded the National Disaster Management Authority to procure insecticide and aircraft. “This is a coordinated effort involving the NDMA, the Ministry of Food Security and provincial agricultural departments and the provincial disaster management authorities. We have been spraying extensively in the desert areas in the locust breeding areas. You can’t eradicate locusts but you can control them,” he says.
Khurshid said that as massive locust swarms are expected from the end of May, the local communities should be encouraged to catch locusts through buyback guarantees as soon as possible. The government, he pointed out, should both support and encourage private poultry and animal meal enterprises to buy the locusts and should stop spraying in areas where community-based locust collection is possible.
Ahmed advocates a strategy of mass netting. “Nets, which can be as high as 50 feet stretched across poles in the ground, are a one-time cost and they can keep catching the locusts as they come in multiple swarms,” he says.
Large scale development of indigenous natural pesticides like neem tree oil could also play a role as locusts will not touch plants sprayed with it, says Helga Ahmed, a veteran environmentalist based in Islamabad.
Pakistan’s example may be useful for India. There is usually some locust activity in western Rajasthan and Gujarat most years. But this year the spread has extended to eastern Rajasthan, and locust swarms have been seen in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. An unusually wet late winter season has laid the pathway for the locusts to spread, though a heatwave in central India may provide some relief.
Rina Saeed Khan is a freelance environmental journalist based in Pakistan