Pakistan takes steps to turn locust infestation into farming benefit

Pakistani government researchers are seeking chemical-free methods of cutting the locust population, including turning them into organic compost. (AFP)
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Updated 04 August 2020

Pakistan takes steps to turn locust infestation into farming benefit

  • Pakistan’s worst locust infestation in about 30 years started in June 2019

ISLAMABAD: First the idea was to feed them to chickens, now the plan is to grind them into fertilizer — as more locust swarms threaten Pakistan’s crops, a project aims to test ways of killing and using the voracious pests for the benefit of local communities.
Pakistan’s worst locust infestation in about 30 years started in June 2019, when the insects came over from Iran in a surge climate experts link to changing conditions conducive to the spread of the insects.
This summer, the locusts are breeding locally, says the Pakistani government, which is trying to head off another attack by spraying pesticides on newborn locusts — called hoppers because they cannot fly — in desert areas on the Indian border.
But worries that the pesticides could be harmful to plants, animals and people have motivated researchers to seek chemical-free methods of cutting the locust population.
“We wanted to come up with a locust control project that would be environmentally friendly and sustainable,” said biotechnologist Johar Ali.
For Ali and his colleague Muhammad Khurshid, who was working for the food ministry at the time, the answer was chicken feed.
In February, the state-run Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) sent Ali and Khurshid, now with the privatization ministry, to implement a three-day trial in Punjab province in eastern Pakistan.
During an infestation this spring, villagers in Okara district plucked locusts — which are largely immobile at night — off trees in a nearby forest, gathering about 20 tons of the flying insects.
The project team bought the bugs for 20 Pakistani rupees a kilo, then sold them to a nearby processing plant, which dried them and mixed them into chicken feed, Ali said.
The aim was to help control the locust surge in forested and heavily populated areas, where widespread pesticide spraying is not possible, while also generating income for communities hit by the swarms.
“It’s an out-of-box solution,” Ali said. “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, livestock and people.”
In June, the government shifted the focus from chicken feed to compost, after PARC decided fertilizer was a safer and more feasible use for the insects.
Last month, communities living in the desert areas of Cholistan, Tharparkar, Nara and Thal were trained on how to catch locusts as they head there to breed for the season.
The next step is to look at how to turn the pests into organic fertilizer, explained PARC chairman Muhammad Azeem Khan.
By providing a “slow and continuous” release of nutrients, the compost could help farmers increase their yields by 30 percent and cut their use of chemical fertilizer in half, he said.
Pakistan’s current locust problem started with what Muhammad Tariq Khan, technical director of the food security ministry’s plant protection department, called a “climate change-induced international locust crisis” in Yemen and East Africa.
“Two big cyclones in 2018 dumped enough water in a desert area called the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsula for three generations of locusts to grow undetected,” he said.
Torn by civil war, Yemen was unable to focus on exterminating the pests, which lay their eggs beneath the soil, and so “they came up like a bomb,” Khan said.
July’s monsoon rains arrived 10 days earlier than usual in Pakistan, creating moist soil conditions favorable for the locusts to breed in the border desert area, Khan said.
Swarms are also expected to arrive soon in Pakistan from Somalia, he said.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates losses to agriculture from locusts this year could be as high as 353 billion rupees ($2.2 billion) for winter crops like wheat and potatoes and about 464 billion rupees for summer crops.
“You can’t eradicate locusts, but you can control them. In this situation we have to rely on chemicals,” Khan said.
So far, insecticide-spraying operations have been carried out in 32 affected districts — both desert and cropping areas — spread over about 1 million hectares.
Pakistan’s pesticide-spraying operations had made it impossible to ensure the locusts eaten by poultry would be chemical-free, said PARC’s Azeem Khan.
“Sprayed locusts, if used as feed, are a threat to human health,” he said.
The new project, which has been approved by the National Locust Control Center, will entail buying living and dead locusts from local communities at 25 rupees per kilo.
The bugs will then be mixed with bio-waste such as manure and vegetation to turn them into compost, Azeem Khan said.
PARC is now analyzing samples of dead and decomposing locusts that have been sprayed with insecticide to assess the levels of chemical residue on them, he noted.
The PARC chairman said the government had earmarked $15 million for the project, with just over half going to the communities and the rest toward compost-processing.


Navy chief who supervised bin Laden mission says he voted for Biden

Updated 44 min 52 sec ago

Navy chief who supervised bin Laden mission says he voted for Biden

  • He declared his support for many of the key issues Biden is running on
  • More than 500 retired US military leaders have endorsed Biden in recent months

NEW YORK: The former US Navy Seal who oversaw the 2011 operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden has revealed that he voted for Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the presidential election.
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, retired Adm. William McRaven was scathing about the record of the Trump administration and its “transactional approach to global issues.”
Without referring to the president by name, he said America’s global influence is diminishing as other countries see the most powerful nation in the world “tear up our treaties, leave our allies on the battlefield and cozy up to despots and dictators. (They) have seen an ineptness and a disdain for civility that is beyond anything in their memory.”
He also rejected Trump’s assertion that the US is now held in high regard as a result of his leadership. McRaven, who was commander of US Special Operations Command from 2011 to 2014, said that the world no longer trusts America to “stand up to tyranny, lift up the downtrodden, free the oppressed, and fight for the righteous.”
He stressed his traditional conservative values, including opposition to abortion and a tough stance on defense matters. But he also declared his support for many of the key issues Biden is running on, including support for racial equality and the Black Lives Matter movement, a fair path to citizenship for immigrants, a return to America’s founding ideals of diversity and inclusion, and the need to take action on climate change.
More than 500 retired US military leaders have endorsed Biden in recent months, including four former chairmen of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. However, McRaven has been particularly forceful in his criticism since the president took office, describing Trump as unfit for the office of commander-in-chief. In numerous interviews and op-eds he has accused him of eroding American values and undermining US democratic institutions.
He described Trump’s attacks on the media as “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.” And in an op-ed for the Washington Post in February, he said he fears for the future of his country if Trump remains in power.
“As Americans, we should be frightened,” he wrote. “(When) good men and women can’t speak the truth, (when) integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security — then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.”
In another scathing op-ed, published by the New York Times in October 2019, McRaven said the American republic is “under attack” from the man in the Oval Office.
Trump previously dismissed the criticism, claiming in 2018 that McRaven had been a supporter of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election, and questioning why bin Laden was not killed sooner.
In response, McRaven said: “I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else.”
On one occasion when asked to comment on the criticism from the retired admiral, Trump said he did not know who he was.
In his latest op-ed — titled “Biden will make America lead again” — McRaven restated the need for an American leadership driven by “conviction and a sense of honor and humility.”
He concludes with a warning that echoes one given by former President George H.W. Bush in the 1998 book “A World Transformed:” “If we remain indifferent to our role in the world, if we retreat from our obligation to our citizens and our allies and if we fail to choose the right leader, then we will pay the highest price for our neglect and shortsightedness.”