India ignores UN advice to register biopesticides against locusts, still uses toxic chemicals

19 July 2020
A photograph of locust swarms in Jaipur, Rajasthan, on 25 May 2020. For over five years now, the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations body, has been encouraging India to include the use of biopesticides—which are environment friendly—to its locust-management arsenal. 
Vishal Bhatnagar / NurPhoto / Getty Images
A photograph of locust swarms in Jaipur, Rajasthan, on 25 May 2020. For over five years now, the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations body, has been encouraging India to include the use of biopesticides—which are environment friendly—to its locust-management arsenal. 
Vishal Bhatnagar / NurPhoto / Getty Images

As swarms of desert locusts descended upon India this year, toxic insecticides were sprayed over two lakh hectares of land to contain their spread. But the measure could have serious environmental and health consequences. India’s Locust Warning Organization, or LWO, a body under the ministry of agriculture, uses fifteen different formulations of eight insecticides for controlling their spread. Five of these insecticides are banned, restricted or withdrawn in one or more countries abroad. According to the website of the ministry’s Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee, nine of the fifteen formulations are highly toxic and the remaining six formulations are moderately toxic.

Locusts threaten food security and livelihoods of millions of farmers—even a small swarm can devour crops and pastures, eating as much in one day as 2,500 people. For over five years now, the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations body, has been encouraging India to include the use of biopesticides—which are environment friendly—to its locust-management arsenal. In December 2014, India agreed to register a biopesticide named “Metarhizium acridum” at a session of the FAO Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in South-West Asia, or SWAC—a regional locust-control body. But even now, metarhizium acridum has not been registered as a biopesticide used for locust control in the country. 

When I asked KL Gurjar, the LWO’s deputy director, about this, he said that a request has been made to the FAO to supply a sample of metarhizium acridum. “The prevailing temperature in Rajasthan is more than 45 degree Celsius,” he told me. The LWO is responsible for monitoring, survey and control of desert locusts in Scheduled Desert Areas—spread across Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat—and Rajasthan sees the worst locust outbreaks in India. “At this temperature, no biopesticide will be viable or effective,” he said, before adding that there is “no practical scope of these biopesticides.” 

But Keith Cressman, FAO’s Senior Locust Forecasting Officer and a 2014 SWAC meeting participant, rejected this argument. “No, it’s okay, it will be fine,” he said, in response to a question on the biopesticide’s efficacy at 45 degree Celsius. Replying to another question, he said, “It is well known that it is effective, so I don’t think there is any other need for studies actually. It works.”

Roughly every two years since 1964, country delegates from four Asian nations—Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India—have come together to calibrate their fight against the desert locust at SWAC summits.  Representatives discuss cross-border surveys; new equipment; plan for emergencies and exchange data on country operations at these summits. A discussion about biopesticides—pesticides derived from animals, plants and microorganisms—was on the agenda of its 2014 session in Tehran, held between 15 and 18 December. 

According to the report on the 2014 session, the FAO reminded the representatives of the usefulness of biopesticides. Countries did not have to substitute chemical pesticides, the FAO said. They could simply add biopesticides to its arsenal and use it to spray in environmentally sensitive areas such as “pastures with grazing livestock, in national parks, near water bodies or inhabited areas.” An example followed. 

Mirjan Hemat, the delegate of Afghanistan—then the head of the country’s emergency pest-action department—presented results for metarhizium acridum, a green powder made from spores of a fungus, specific to locusts and grasshoppers. When the fungus comes in contact with the locust, it germinates, penetrates and develops within its body until it kills the insect. The delegate said metharhizium trials were effective and that it worked well under different temperatures. “It is super safe, it has zero negative impacts on the environment or health,” Cressman told me this June. “You can mix some up and drink it and you’ll probably be okay.”

The report said that a “discussion ensued regarding the appropriateness of biopesticides during outbreaks” and “concern was expressed in the relatively long time it takes to kill locusts.” Cressman told me that locusts sprayed with metarhizium are neutralised: sprayed bugs cannot migrate, eat or reproduce. But they take about a week, sometimes longer, to die. Countries at the SWAC 2014 agreed that the biopesticide was better suited for “preventive rather than outbreak control.” The SWAC’s 2014 report—comprising a recommendation that frontline countries should facilitate registration of metarhizium—was unanimously adopted. 

Nikhil Eapen is a freelance journalist and a researcher at Equidem, a labour-rights organisation.

Keywords: pesticides Insecticide agriculture
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