Is Covid-19 overshadowing locust threat to food security?

Updated 21 Apr 2020


The Covid-19 carriers from Iran, that have caused much havoc in our country, have overshadowed the locust threat to food security here. — AFP
The Covid-19 carriers from Iran, that have caused much havoc in our country, have overshadowed the locust threat to food security here. — AFP

ACCORDING to Keith Cressman of Locust Watch website of the United Nations, the current widespread locust breeding in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia is an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihood at the beginning of the upcoming cropping season. Pakistan is on the list of hard-hit countries, along with Iran and Sudan.

Reportedly, the military has been deployed in Uganda to spray trees by hand in the morning before locusts take off. Ethiopia, where about 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture, is facing the worst infestation it has seen in the last quarter of a century. Furthermore, it is encountering cross-border locust migration from Somalia and Kenya.

Pakistan is also facing a similar crisis of cross-border locust migration from Iran. The Covid-19 carriers from Iran, that have caused much havoc in our country, have overshadowed the locust threat to food security here.

The overshadowing can be gauged from the fact that the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s locust update of March 17, 2020, is silent about Pakistan. This is reflective of the fact that the Department of Plant Protection (DPP), responsible for the control of locusts in the country, has not provided an update to the FAO. This raises a big question mark, particularly in the view of the declaration of a locust emergency, the national action plan to control locusts and the commissioning of committees for the inter-provincial coordination, surveillance and monitoring of the pests.

As per the FAO locust update of March 17, 2020, for Iran, swarms of locusts continue to lay eggs in the southwest provinces, therefore hatching and band formation is imminent. Local breeding continues in the south-east where hoppers are forming groups in eastern Hormozgan.

Instead of relying on China, the Department of Plant Protection should devise its own strategy, involving local inhabitants who have kept the desert under surveillance in the past as well as kept the pests under control using existing equipment

The government of Iran is striving hard to contain the menace in its south-west provinces, particularly South Khuzestan, Bushehr, South Fars and West Hormozan. However, Iran may not be able to contain the swarms of locusts forming the way it has not been able to control the coronavirus pandemic.

Normally, desert locusts breed in South-East Iran in spring (March-May). Last year, desert locust swarms invaded Saudi Arabia in January and migrated undetected and uncontrolled to Iran in February, despite adequate control measures. This year too, Saudi Arabia is encountering locust insurgency and control operations are in progress. However, there are chances of cross-border migration from Saudi Arabia to Iran and from there to Pakistan via Balochistan as experienced last year.

During March 2019, when Balochistan witnessed small-scale breeding, it was taken very lightly by the DPP leaving vast potential breeding areas without regular surveillance. As a result, a few locust swarms migrated from Iran and were able to lay eggs and complete their life cycles uninterrupted.

By the end of May 2019, these locusts swarmed from the spring breeding zone in Balochistan to the summer breeding zones in Sindh and Punjab (Nara, Thar and Cholistan desert) causing widespread damage to vegetation and trees in the desert and crops in green belts in Sindh and Punjab till the beginning of February 2020.

In view of the poor locust control capability of the concerned department (aka DPP), this year the government has sought help from China. Reportedly, China is sending a team of technical experts to deliberate on the aerial management of locust swarms in Pakistan.

As an ex-entomologist of the DPP, with experience fighting four locust invasions during my 37 years of service, I suggest that instead of relying solely on China, the department should devise its own strategy. The strategy should involve local inhabitants who have been found very useful for keeping the desert under surveillance as well as for the timely control of invading swarms by using existing equipment with which they saved crops such as wheat and oilseeds.

The modus operandi of locust control by farmers during the 2020 locust invasion in the area adjoining Nara desert has already been submitted to the federal minister of national food security and research on April 7, 2020, for perusal and necessary action.

Other than spraying ULV formulation of Malathion 95 per cent using vehicles and aircraft, stomach poison pesticides should also be used for controlling nymphal stages of locusts, as was the practice in the 1970s. This is a very cheap and easy method of locust control that employs the inhabitants of the desert. Previously, the pesticide dieldrin was used for bait preparation. As this pesticide has been banned now, any stomach poison can be used for bait preparation.

The writer is an ex-entomologist in the Department of Plant Protection and president of the Agriwatch Society of Pakistan

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 20th, 2020