Locusts and
Climate Change

India faces an unprecedented problem in the form of massive locust swarms attacking crops and threatening food security. How is climate change involved?

CHARU PRAGYA

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Some states in India, particularly Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and even parts of Maharashtra have witnessed huge locust swarms descend upon crops and vegetation. These locusts devour tonnes of food in a day, and this can be a serious problem for food security, especially for a country like India. 

 

Locusts are grasshoppers, except they differ in their migration abilities over large distances and other  habits. Causes like food scarcity can sometimes drive these insects, otherwise solitary creatures, to congregate and hunt for food.   As their population increases, they become “gregarious”— the tendency to form groups to hunt and eat. Locusts exhibit this behaviour when they touch each other on their hind legs, secreting a large amount of serotonin, which is also found in humans.

These locusts entered India due to favourable wind conditions through Pakistan and Iran. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, “Much of these movements were associated with strong westerly winds from Cyclone Amphan in the Bay of Bengal.” Large swaths of East Africa have been afflicted with these locust swarms since  the start of 2020, and it’s “being called the worst outbreak the region has seen in decades”. 

"Abnormally heavy rains last year, which scientists say were made more likely by the long-term warming of the Indian Ocean, a hallmark of climate change, have exacerbated a locust infestation across eastern Africa. Higher temperatures make it more inviting for locusts to spread to places where the climate wasn’t as suitable before — and in turn, destroy vast swaths of farmland and pasture for some of the poorest people on the planet.”

—Somini Sengupta, New York Times

According to experts, the deep movement of locusts can be attributed to the fact that “while rabi crops have been harvested, kharif sowing is yet to begin. The low availability of crops is leading the swarms to devour leaves on trees, and vegetable, fruit and cotton crops, and move deeper into India in search of fodder.”

 

According to the Union Agriculture Ministry, “Authorities have cleared locusts from about 50,468 hectares (1,24,709 acres) in several states,”. Loud noise and pesticides are a deterrent to these locusts.

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This is not the first time that India is facing a locust swarm, though the scale of it is unprecedented. In 2019-20, locusts swarms caused losses upto Rs. 100 Crore, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Earlier in January, a locust swarm hit Gujarat (the largest in 25 years), “destroying 25,000 hectares of wheat,  rapeseed, cumin and potatoes”. 

 

This is a big challenge for India, which is currently struggling to contain the impact of COVID-19 on an already feeble economy. Tonnes of food being destroyed is a risk that must be curtailed at all costs, especially at a time when millions have descended into poverty after losing their livelihoods. A combination of climate change, unprecented effects of COVID-19 and this locust swarming will affect the food security of India in the days to come. 

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