The breadbaskets of Pakistan and India have been threatened for the past 2.5 decades by locusts’ swarms. In 2019, massive swarms of locusts covered the sky which made them appear as though aliens had taken over.
By Dr. Shah Nawaz, Dr. Urfa Bin Tahir*, Dr. Muhammad Sohail Sajid, Dr. Razia Kausar
The rural inhabitants and impoverished farmers who were already facing the COVID-19 pandemic were severely affected financially by this scourge. In Pakistan, locusts’ swarms initially arrived from neighboring Iran in winter. They swiftly overran broad agricultural areas in the southwest, destroying crops like cotton, wheat, maize, and fodder. In February 2019, the Pakistani government approved a National Action Plan to combat locusts. Our close ally and neighbor China had donated spray drones, thousands of tons of pesticides, and technical expertise for their control.
Climate change has significantly impacted Pakistan’s locusts’ plague. It started when significant rainfall moistened the deserts of Saudi Arabia in 2019. A fair number of locusts hatched and have been breeding ever since. With seasonal winds, the swarms drifted eastward across Iran to Pakistan. After reproducing in the eastern deserts of Pakistan, the locusts swept again into India.
The government of Pakistan was compelled to declare a national emergency as the invasive insect i.e., locust decimated the country’s agriculture. Due to the destruction, Pakistan, a country of 220 million people, fell shortage of its target for wheat production by about 2 million tons, forcing the government to import the crop for the first time in more than ten years. Due to the low yields, the price of wheat and other foodgrains has gone up, boosting overall inflation to over 10% in September 2019 and putting more political pressure on the administration.
There are no bio-safe insecticides being employed by the Pakistani government. These pesticide sprays are hazardous to the environment, animals (wildlife & livestock), and humans. Communities in Sindh, Balochistan, and Punjab that are involved in agriculture and are close to Pakistan’s desert regions have already noticed negative impacts, such as dead birds (crows, parrots, and sparrows) in orchards. They have also observed a decline in the beneficial insects, such as honeybees and butterflies, that were once attracted to the area to consume the locust swarms. They are also feared for their effects on agriculture production, soil health, and water quality.
Another harmful impact caused by directly by the locust infestation is that it reduces food security by reducing agricultural production. This scarcity increases the shortage of food, which is directly related to malnutrition and high food prices. It is highly improbable that hunger will be eradicated, and the food system will be sustainable by 2050 given the nation’s steadily growing population and the predicted decline in food supplies.
The future demands on the global food system are likely to upsurge. As the world’s population increases, the demand for farm products is anticipated to increase by almost 50% by 2030, forcing a shift towards sustainable intensification of the agricultural systems. Moreover, the production costs of the available feed commodities from plants, poultry, and aquaculture, which account for 60 to 80 percent of their production value, necessitates a quick transition to alternative food sources.
Alternative solution to reduce food security
Eating insects as food or as a source of protein is known as entomophagy. People have traditionally consumed insects in China and other Western Hemisphere nations. In Asia, Africa, Mexico, and South America, eating insects is a natural dietary source for many ethnic groups, including Muslims. Locusts are processed for eating in various nations and cultures using a range of regionally specialized techniques, such as eating it raw, boiling, toasting, roasting, frying, and preparing curry in the Gulf and with rice (regionally named as tiddi biryani) in Southern Baluchistan and some parts of Sindh. Reports have suggested that entomophagy has provided rural communities in these nations with nutritional and environmental benefits and has also proven economical. Due to their shorter life cycles and more generations per season, insects like locusts, may be easily grown or can be mass-collected from forests and water sources; hence, providing a practical solution to the food insecurity,
Locusts are considered a rich source of protein, lipids, and calories with values equal to or even higher than animal-sourced meat. The calcium content of desert locusts ranges from 4 to 28 mg/100g, which is comparable to or higher than that of mutton and beef. Additionally, they contain equivalent or higher levels of essential micronutrients like iron and zinc, etc. Also, the desert locusts are considered a rich source of multi-vitamins containing 267.5 µg/kg of vitamin A, 10–20 µg /100 g of vitamin B12, 0.8-2.4 µg /kg of vitamin D3, and 10 to 20 µg /100g of vitamin E.
In addition, locusts include phytosterols, which restrict the body’s absorption of cholesterol, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 and omega-6, which are beneficial for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Despite having a high nutritional value, eating locusts is nonetheless constrained by social expectations, religious views, and personal convictions. However, they have been widely used, approved of, and consumed in groups like Africans and Arabs, notably to stop significant losses to crops and food security every time they swarmed. We think that eating locusts could be a viable and effective strategy to deal with future food scarcity, protein shortfall, and worldwide food crisis.
In 2019, the scheme paid 20 Pakistani rupees for each kilogram of collected locusts under the slogan “pick up locusts, get money, and protect crops”. Locusts can only fly during the day. At night, they congregate on trees and open spaces devoid of dense foliage, where they remain essentially immobile until the following morning. Locusts are therefore easy to haul at night. The project team weighed the locusts before selling them to nearby businesses that make animal feed (poultry and fish feed). Farmers could make up to 20,000 Pakistani rupees for a single night’s work.
Commercial benefits and interests
In five-week research conducted by HI-TECH FEEDS (PVT) LTD, the company fed bug-based feed to its broiler chickens. All nutritional elements came out positively – there was no problem with the feed generated from these locusts. The locusts have a high biological value and strong potential for use in aquaculture feed (fish, prawns, & lobster) poultry feed and even dairy feed if we can trap them without spraying on them or we can rear them for the very purpose. In Pakistan, an estimated 1.5 billion chickens and countless fish farms are grown; all of these animals might purchase high-protein locusts’ meal.
Pakistan imports 300,000 tons of soya beans, to make oil (through pressing of beans) for sale. The crushed soya beans are utilized as animal feed. Locusts have 70% protein compared to 45% in soybeans. The cost of soybean meal is 90 Pakistani rupees per kilogram, however, the cost of catching and drying locusts so they may be marketed as a usable commodity is nothing or may cost a nominal amount if locusts are arranged to be reared in local facility. So, using locusts as animals’ feed source has significant potential savings in foreign exchange. Moreover, the overall processing cost of 30 Pakistani rupees per kilogram is spent on the drying and grinding of captured locusts which is relatively cheaper than the processing of soybeans.
“It’s a practical idea that may be expanded with ease in our populous rural areas. Chemical sprays are appropriate in our arid regions where locusts thrive, but not in places where we have farms with people, animals, and crops.”
All that is required is for the local community to gather and sell the locusts. Because of the epidemic, there are a lot of unemployed individuals. They may all be put to work gathering and selling the locusts. Additionally, because rice is typically processed in the winter, rice enterprises have extra capacity for the summer to process captured locust swarms.