The method can be useful for India also
As the biggest locust swarms for more than 25 years threaten India and Pakistan’s breadbasket regions, a pilot project in Pakistan has offered a way to cull the crop-destroying pests without using insecticides that harm people and the environment.
Pakistan’s eastern provinces were first overwhelmed in the winter. Fresh swarms are just beginning to take to air and are expected to grow until mid-summer, reports The Third Pole.
The Pakistan government approved a “National Action Plan” for locust control in February and airborne spraying of some 300,000 litres of insecticide is taking place.
The report said climate change played a huge 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 has crossed into India.
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.
The brainchild for this is Muhammad Khurshid, a civil servant of 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,” Johar said.
Khurshid said 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 set up a three-day trial project in the Pepli Pahar Forest in Depalpur, Pakistan, where huge swarms of adult locusts were reported in mid-February. The forest area was chosen as it was less likely to be contaminated by insecticide, the report added.
Using the slogan “Catch locusts, Earn money, Save crops,, the project offered to pay farmers 20 Pakistani rupees (US $0.12) per kg 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 said.
The community’s locust haul averaged seven tons 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 (US $125) per person for one night’s work.
“On the first day in the field we had to send word out and around 10-15 people showed up,” Johar said.
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 weigh the bags and check they were indeed full of locusts, and then pay them for their efforts,” Johar added.
Muhammad Athar, general manager for Hi-Tech Feeds (within the Hi-Tech Group, one of Pakistan’s biggest poultry breeders and animal feed makers), said his firm fed the bug-based feed to its broiler chickens in a five-week study, according to the Third Pole report.
“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 said.
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 tons 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 kg (US $0.5), whereas locusts are free – the only cost is capturing them and drying them so they can be sold as a usable product,” Athar continued.
The processing cost of drying and milling locusts is only Rs30/kg. As Pakistan imports soya beans, he sees substantial potential savings in foreign exchange expenses too.
Right after the pilot study, the coronavirus pandemic forced Khurshid and Johar to put any further moves to scale up the project on hold, despite interest from large-scale commercial operators, the report mentioned.
“There are so many jobless people because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They can all be put to work collecting locusts and selling them,” Johar said.
“It is 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,” Johar added.
Khurshid said the government should support and encourage private poultry and animal meal enterprises to buy the locusts and should stop spraying chemicals in areas where community-based locust collection is possible.
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, said Helga Ahmed, a veteran environmentalist based in Islamabad.
The report concluded by adding that 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 heat wave in central India may provide some relief.