Islamabad: At a time when Pakistanis are struggling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a new threat has emerged in the country as the worst invasion by desert locusts in decades threatens to destroy thousands of hectares of crops in the country.
Overall, 38 per cent of the land area in Pakistan (60 per cent in Balochistan, 25 per cent in Sindh and 15 per cent in Punjab) is fertile breeding ground for desert locusts, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). “The entire country is under the threat of invasion by locusts if this is not contained in the breeding regions,” the FAO report warned. The two-inch-long greenish-yellow insects may not look as deadly, but a swarm of 40 million of these can eat up as much food as consumed by 35,000 people in a day.
As aerial and ground spraying of pesticides continues, Pakistan is attempting to fight the locust plague with an innovative and environmentally-safe measure. The pilot project offers a unique solution to involve farmers to catch locusts and earn money by turning them into high-protein chicken feed. The project, with the slogan ‘Catch locusts. Earn money. Save crops’, is the brainchild of Dr Muhammad Khurshid, a PhD in natural resources management and former civil servant in the Ministry of National Food Security and Research. He then involved Johar Ali, a biotechnologist who had previously worked at Pakistan Agricultural Research Council.
“Nobody believed that getting rid of locusts could be this simple. We went out in the field to test. And the result was remarkable!” Dr Khurshid told Gulf News. A team of agricultural, natural resources and nutritional experts was formed for the pilot project in the Pipli Pahar Forest in Depalpur in the densely-populated Okara district of Punjab, where huge swarms of locusts were reported in February. The inspiration, he says, comes from Yemen that managed to eliminate locusts in 2019 by involving the community with this catchphrase: ‘Eat locusts before they eat your crops.’
Catch locusts and earn money
To mobilise the community, banners have been put up and local mosques involved to create awareness. “People were desperate to save their crops. So, when they heard that they would be paid in return of killing locusts, hundreds of them showed up,” Ali said. Locusts usually fly in the daylight hours and are inactive at night, resting on trees and open ground, making it easier to catch them. “We found out that the best time to catch locusts was between 10pm and 8am.” The project offered locals Rs20 (44 fils) per kilogramme of locusts. “Some households managed to earn more than 20,000 rupees with just one night’s effort as they involved all the family members, even children, in the job,” he added.
In four days, the locals managed to collect 25 tonnes of locusts, bringing in bagfuls on carts and bikes to the market. It helped the poor rural communities in two ways: Protecting their, as well as earning an extra income.
‘A win-win strategy’
Prime Minister Imran Khan has welcomed this out-of-the-box solution and directed experts to further explore the idea that has the potential to turn a crisis into an opportunity. “This is a win-win strategy to get rid of locusts, create new jobs, offer a protein-rich and low-cost feed to the poultry industry, while protecting the environment” from the harmful effects of pesticides, said Malik Amin Islam, Adviser to the PM on Climate Change, while speaking to Gulf News. This innovative solution can help generate income at a time when rural people are facing losses, crop damage and joblessness due to COVID-19 and now the locust menace. The challenge is to implement the project on a large scale and capture locusts without spraying insecticides or pesticides because only then it is safe to use them as animal feed.
Protein-rich animal feed
One of the most interesting findings is that locusts are extremely rich in protein and other nutrients. “Analysis showed that locusts contain about 70 per cent protein, which can make excellent feed for the poultry industry that currently imports about 300,000 tonnes of soybean that comprises only 30 to 45 per cent protein,” Ali told Gulf News. The bug-based feed is safe and can be used as food for chicken, cattle, fish and even pets, he says. The cost of drying and milling locusts is only Rs30 per kg, which is much lower than the cost of importing soybean and can save precious foreign exchange.
Involving the poultry industry
The community involvement, nutrient analysis and turning locusts into poultry feed under the pilot scheme has proved that “locusts are more of a resource than a challenge”. The next step is to engage the animal feed industry and that would require formal certification of locusts as animal feed by the government, Khurshid suggested. One of Pakistan’s largest poultry feed producers, Hi-Tech Group, has tested locusts for poultry feed and is satisfied with the results. However, it insists that it is important to ensure that locusts are captured without the use of pesticides so that they are safe for consumption by animals.
Safe and secure strategy
As experts have warned of a second threat of invasion by locust swarms later this month and the next, community-based locust management is one of the best-suited approaches with multiple benefits. “It will help Pakistan control the pest attack, generate income for locals while providing quality animal feed. It will cut down the soybean import bill and the cost of spraying aircraft and vehicles with pesticides, thereby reducing the use of chemicals” that are toxic for people, the wildlife and environment, experts say. “While chemical sprays may be suitable for large desert areas, it is criminal to use them in farmlands,” as Pakistan has ratified several chemical conventions, cautions Dr Khurshid.
2. Encourage poultry and livestock industry to buy locusts for feed.
3. Generate income for locals and save foreign exchange spent on importing soybean.
4. Discourage spraying of chemicals on crops that can harm humans, animals and the environment.