(To minimize the environmental costs of locust control, non pesticidal measures must be prioritised)

New Delhi, June 2: Indian farmers are already suffering due to the covid-19 lockdown and weather anomalies such as concurrent cyclonic winds and rains and frequent hail storms. There is a new attack on them in the form of desert locust swarms which originated in Arabian Peninsula and have reached Uttar Pradesh after crossing Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. This is considered as the biggest locust attack in the last 26 years which has already destroyed nearly 50,000 hectares (125,000 acres) of cropland. Successive locust outbreaks can be expected until July in Rajasthan and as far east as Bihar and Odisha. As apprehended, if this crisis continues beyond June, it will severely impact the Kharif Crops such as rice, cotton, sugarcane, arhar and several millets causing livelihood and food security disaster for our farmers and consumers alike.

The current locust outbreak appears to result from cyclones which affected the Arabian Peninsula in 2018, together with warm weather at the end of 2019 which was also combined with heavy rains in East Africa.

The heavy rains and cyclones were the result of an unusually extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole warming the seas in the west of the Indian Ocean. This has raised strong  speculations related to the influence of climate change in locust outbreaks. As the extreme climatic events intensifies in Indian Ocean, it is very much possible that the wet soil conditions favor the development of locust swarms more often.

A few countries such as Somalia and Pakistan have declared locust outbreak as a national emergency. Given the agricultural landscape of our country, India too needs to deal with this as the top priority. The Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India too in its contingency plan has recommended Malathion pesticide (an organophosphate pesticide) using aerial spraying, or application by tractor. “However, it must be made clear that the worse is the locust outbreak, the greater the amounts of pesticides used and hence, greater will be the associated risks,” said Ishteyaque Ahmad, Senior Campaigner at Greenpeace India.

He further said, “Wide scale spraying of hazardous chemical pesticides should not be done at all. If it is used as the last resort, it must be strategic and with extreme caution. It must be reiterated that chemical pesticides have both environmental and human health impacts, non-target insects and birds may be particularly vulnerable. Even in humans, organophosphates are acutely toxic. In the longer term, exposure may lead to cognitive impairment and nervous system damage. ”

“To minimize the environmental and human health costs of locust control, non pesticidal measures must be prioritised. Experts recommend use of organic formulations prepared of Neem, garlic and chillies as one of the solutions. Other methods, such as high decibel sound, use of a fungus ‘Metarhizium anisopliae var. Acridum’ or Green Muscle have also shown encouraging results. Mud Spray could be another eco-friendly and low cost solution for farmers. Perhaps, for a sustainable solution to the menace, the government must invest in research and development of non-hazardous and chemical free alternatives. In the long term India should continue and invest more in sustainable ways of food and energy production. It will increase the ecological and economic resilience of our production systems and will reduce the environmental costs of development. It will also help in controlling and reducing atmospheric and oceanic temperature,” concluded Ahmad.