As envisioned by the United Nations, India is surrounded by the threat of locust attack. Locusts are swarming across the country, making it the worst such attack in 26 years. The insects are destroying crops even as the country has been brought to a standstill amid the coronavirus pandemic.
So, what is a locust? Why is it a threat to India? And, what are we doing to combat it? Let’s walk you through all these questions in the simplest way possible!
Locusts belongs to the family of grasshoppers. They are the oldest migratory pests in the world, as described by The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Of these, desert locust is considered to be the “most devastating”.
These insects are usually solitary and harmless. However, certain environmental conditions like prolonged monsoon and heavy cyclones make them reproduce faster – almost 20-fold within three months. The faster reproduction results in their growing population and as they become abundant and dense in number, they change their behaviour and become more inclined to disperse together; form swarms to find food and ultimately start damaging crops. This is known as gregarisation.
Now, these ‘deadly’ desert locusts have now made their way to India, threatening our agricultural economy.
According to FAO, an adult locust can eat a quantity equal to its weight – about 2 grams – every single day which is not a matter of grave concern. However, what is worth noting is that a single square kilometre of the swarm can contain somewhere between 40-80 million adult locusts. Every single day, if they cover 130-150 kilometers, they can eat the food consumed by as many as 35, 000 people. A desert locust lives for about three to five months but then it differs depending mainly on weather and ecological conditions. The ones that come next are- #2020 Locust Swarms. It has been reported for the first time at Panna Tiger Reserve at MP which is worrisome, for it only escalates the plight of the farmers, making their hard-earned produces gone for a toss.
If we look at the statistics, India is witnessing its worst locust attack in 26 years. On Monday, 25 May, as predicted, many states including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh began their battle against the locust attack. The current swarm originated in East Africa and has reached India via Pakistan. The locusts have already destroyed crops in 18 districts of Rajasthan and almost a dozen districts of Madhya Pradesh. It is feared that 17 more districts in the state including Aligarh, Mathura, and Jhansi will be hit in the next couple of weeks. In the past few years, there has been a significant increase in the frequency of such cyclones. The attack usually takes place at the beginning and end of the summer. In the wake of these attacks, Gujrat and Punjab farmers have also been warned and have been asked to be cautious and prepare for the impending invasion. The United Nations had warned that armies of locusts swarming across continents pose a “severe risk” to India’s agriculture, and would have an impact on the economy this year.
Unlike the usual behaviour of locusts who would fly in the low-lying areas, the locusts are flying at a greater height this time and are breeding 400 times more than usual due to the favourable climatic conditions brought on by the untimely rains and increased cyclonic activity. Hence, heretofore, the primary method of controlling desert locust swarms which was through chemicals needs to be changed. Initially, spraying small concentrated doses of chemicals through vehicle mount and aerial sprayers used to be the solution for keeping locusts at bay. However, this year, India is experimenting with a different approach. This is an emergency situation and in order to provide relief to the farmers who are already dealing with the economic downfall of the lockdown due to COVID- 19, the locust control offices are working since 11 April with 50 spray equipment/vehicles.
According to FAO, the current situation remains “extremely alarming” in East Africa. Countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are facing a threat of having their crops damaged. They have also reached Saudi Arabia and Iran to Pakistan and of course India, all while breaking into smaller swarms to travel across the country. Hence, in order to fight this unprecedented threat on food and survival, the union minister for Agriculture has requested the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to help the government with planes that can fight the locust menace from a height by spraying pesticides.
Experts warn that rising temperature, low rainfall and long dry spells could mean more locust swarms in our near future.