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

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
19 July, 2020

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 Five of these insecticides are banned, restricted or withdrawn in one or more countries abroad.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. 

In the recommendation regarding the registration of metarhizium, member countries had also been asked to refer to the tenth report by the Pesticide Referee Group. The PRG is an independent expert body that advises FAO on the efficacy, health and environmental risks of insecticides. In its tenth meeting, which ended just three days before SWAC 2014, the PRG recommended that countries must prioritise insecticides that have the least toxic impacts for humans and wildlife. The meeting’s report lists metarhizium as the “most appropriate” for locust control. On the other hand, it added that organophosphates such as malathion and chlorpyrifos—chemicals that are widely used in India for locust control—should only be used as a “last resort.” Organophosphates are a class of insecticides comprising highly toxic chemicals. 

But nearly six years later, the liquid high-pressure streams spurting out of India’s helicopters, drones, fire engines and tractors to contain armies of ravenous swarms falling from the sky, were not biopesticides but toxic insecticides. The LWO—the oldest national locust programme in the world, with personnel seasoned to contain locust outbreaks—appears resistant to adopting biopesticides to control the desert locust. In almost every locust-control campaign since 2002, a high-concentrate low-volume dose of an insecticide called Malathion 96% ULV—ultra-low volume—has been deployed. 

When I spoke to Gurjar on 17 July, he, too, mentioned, “At a national level, as the Locust Warning Organization, we are using Malathion.” On contact with a locust, malathion is converted into a lethal mixture that inhibits an enzyme in the central nervous system, leading to convulsions, paralysis and death, according to a 2003 factsheet in the Journal of Pesticide Reform, published by a US-based non-profit, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides. 

Eight insecticides—malathion, chlorpyrifos, fenvalerate, quinalphos, deltamethrin, diflubenzuron, fipronil and lamdacyhalothrin—are approved for locust-control operations in India, available in fifteen different formulations. Some of these concoctions that are diluted in water or oil before use may only be used in the desert, while others have been approved even in agricultural areas. 

For the same reasons that they are lethal to locusts, the chemicals are poisonous to human beings and animals if they are sufficiently exposed. Chlorpyrifos has been linked to lung cancers, Parkinson’s disease, miscarriages and reduced liver function and curtails brain development in children. The umbilical cord blood in 87 percent of newborn infants had traces of chlorpyrifos, according to a study published in the Environmental Research—a multidisciplinary journal of environmental sciences and engineering—in August 2012. 

On the other hand, the World Health Organization classified malathion as a probable carcinogen. The chemical can also affect the immune system, cause asthma and severe damages to sperm in the male reproductive system. The PRG in 2014 said that chlorpyrifos studies—some of the field trials conducted in locust areas—were shown to cause a 90 percent fall in population among insects and bees. 

Foxes, desert cats, and a variety of rare eagles and falcons feed on poison-infested locusts, Sumit Dookia, a wildlife biologist and a specialist on the desert ecosystem, told me over the phone. An instance of this was mentioned in a letter that Arindam Tomar, the chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan, had sent to B Rajender, the joint secretary of the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare in May, last year. Tomar wrote that pesticide sprayed to kill locusts near the Ramdeora and Loharki areas in Jaisalmer were a threat to the Great Indian Bustards. “Great Indian Bustards regularly feed on large insects such as locusts, beetles, lizards etc. If the pesticide is sprayed to kill locusts, there is a threat to the health of GIBs which consume them,” Tomar wrote. He added that with its population down to about two hundred across the world, the species is considered critically endangered.

Under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the species listed under the Schedules I and II are accorded the highest levels of protection, Dookia said. “The irony of the pesticide problem is a number of species at risk are Schedule I or Schedule II species under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972,” he told me. 

Metarhizium, the green powder, has many distinct advantages: it is easily stored, it can be sprayed using the same equipment and it has no impact on the environment or human health. While the fungus cannot replace the role of chemical pesticides in a locust upsurge, it can be used as a complementary weapon to safeguard crops, protect farmlands and sensitive ecological areas. 

In 2013, the central government set up a committee, led by the scientist Anupam Varma, to evaluate the continued use of 66 pesticides that are banned or restricted in foreign countries. Two years later, the committee recommended a phased ban of 19 of them and a further review of 27 pesticides. Four major locust chemicals that are approved to be used for locust-control operations—chlorpyrifos, quinalphos, malathion and deltamethrin—figured in the review list. 

The following year, at the 2016 SWAC summit in Islamabad, in Pakistan, all four countries, including India, reported they had not registered Metarhizium and “highlighted the difficulties of introducing such products that have not yet been shown to be effective under local conditions.” The FAO, however, again emphasised the importance of reducing dependency on chemicals and considering the use of biopesticides whenever possible.  

It was only in March this year that the Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee deliberated and approved the import of two kilograms of metarhizium for conducting trials for desert locust control. Gurjar told me, “We have to see the practical result.” 

India’s reluctance to register biopesticides may be in part a reflection of its bias against biological-control agents, according to Kavitha Kuruganti, the co-convener of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. “The decision-makers on which pesticide should be registered, which pesticide should be prohibited and so on, very often are agricultural scientists who have been schooled into thinking that pesticides are both necessary and inevitable for farming,” she said. 

In any locust mission, insecticide loaders, sprayers, drivers and labourers—men and women who come in direct contact with splashing, drifting chemicals—face the greatest risk of poisoning. UN guidelines recommend that operators handling chemicals should wear full protective clothing including gloves, boots and face-shields. Applicators are also required to undergo training on spraying safely, health-check-ups and blood tests to monitor pesticide poisoning. 

The LWO conducts the majority of locust-control operations and its staff comes in contact with organophosphates. “Toxicologists frequently visit and they are taking tests,” Gurjar told me. According to multiple people I spoke with, farmers and district officers typically take over when locusts fall into fields and grazing pastures. Last winter, RS Bhadu, a cumin and pulses farmer in Jaisalmer, helped organise community-spraying operations in various agricultural parts of the district to neutralise locusts. Bhadu told me he used just a cloth to cover his nose and mouth and sometimes a goggle to cover his eyes. “We were not given a PPE kit,” he said. “Even if we had them, it is too hot to be wearing one in this heat.” 

While the short-term impacts of poisoning include headaches, giddiness, vomiting and blurred vision, the long-term chronic impacts are harder to measure. “Nothing may seem to be happening,” Kuruganti told me. “But if your immune system is compromised, you might get malaria more quickly. Or if a sprayer’s spermatozoa are malformed, his wife might have a deformed baby or she could experience spontaneous abortions. And you’ll never be able to correlate it with the toxicity of the pesticide you were exposed to because you’ll be looking at more immediate proximal causes.”

Even in December 2018, there had been no progress to register biopesticides by the SWAC countries. At its meeting in Delhi, the FAO reminded its delegates that “very little progress” has been made on biopesticides. 

This May, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare released a draft order to ban the manufacture, transport and sale of 27 insecticides, including malathion, chlorpyrifos and deltamethrin. Yet, it continued to permit the use of malathion, chlorpyrifos, deltamethrin against the desert locust. The last date to submit comments on the draft is reportedly 11 August. The order does not explain why a pesticide considered poisonous in agriculture, may be suitable for locust control. “The majority of locust operations happen in uninhabited desert areas,” Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu, the executive director at the non-profit Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, told me. “So presumably the ministry thought the impacts on humans and livestock would be minimal.” 

I called, messaged and emailed Atish Chandra, the joint secretary for the plant-protection division under the ministry of agriculture, but did not receive a response. This story will be updated if and when he responds. 

In June this year, Cressman told me that the LWO has done an extraordinary job in controlling this year’s locust outbreak. “We know that India has ordered a small supply of the biopesticide and it should be arriving very shortly. We are encouraging them to conduct registration trials.”