This guest blog post was contributed by Balwinder Singh Kang, of Rajasthan, India
The swarm of locusts was so large, it blackened the sky in the middle of the day.
If we hadn’t known that this plague of pests was coming to attack our farms, we might have thought it was a massive dust storm or an eclipse of the sun.
Because we knew the locusts were on the move, we were ready for them. As they descended on our crops, our entire village came out to defend our fields. This was a struggle for survival—and the lesson we learned is that farmers like us need the best technologies to defeat this threat to our way of life.
My farm is located in the western part of Rajasthan in northern India, close to the border with Pakistan, where locusts are only an occasional danger. This was in fact my first major encounter with them. In other areas, however, they are an annual menace. In favorable weather conditions, their population booms and they rampage across whole regions in a relentless search of food. This year in East Africa, the outbreak is the worst in 70 years.
Maybe you’ve watched a video of a locust attack. It can look like a scene from a horror movie, but it’s even worse in real life. They form clouds so thick and powerful that they can divert an airplane from its destination.
On the ground, each individual insect is about the size of your little finger. The young ones are pink. They turn yellow as they grow and reproduce. They can gather in the trillions and the sounds of their chewing and flying are unforgettable.
When they arrived in our village, we already knew they were assaulting farms in our area, thanks to updates from the agriculture department, notices in the news media, and warnings on WhatsApp. Then, all of a sudden, people in nearby villages alerted us that the locusts were headed our way.
We were determined to protect our crops from this blitz of bugs.
Every able-bodied person took to the fields, from five-year-old children to 70-year-old seniors. Locusts are frightened by noise, so we made as much of it as possible. We shouted at them. We banged pots and pans and kitchen utensils. We even removed the silencers (i.e., mufflers) from our tractors and revved their engines.
Our loud racket disturbed them. They ate some of our plants, but mostly they buzzed around and never settled in for a feast. After about 15 or 20 minutes came a gust of wind. The locusts usually move with the wind direction and they took it as an opportunity to move on.
We were saved.
Some of my neighbors lost a portion of their crops. And more swarms have come after the first attack, but the agriculture department and the farmers have been very active and have been able to control most of them. We all know it could have been much worse. We, like many others, could have suffered total devastation.
Most Indian farmers are smallholders who work on just one or two hectares of land. Locusts can wipe out our hard work in just a few minutes. Losing a crop is always bad but losing it to locusts can be the worst kind of loss because it happens after we’ve already made so many of our investments: We’ve planted seeds, put down our fertilizer, and used up our diesel. What’s more, farm insurance in our country doesn’t cover this calamity.
We owe much of our recent success to modern communication technology. Because we knew the locusts were coming, we were ready to defeat them. And now we’re using these same tools to tell our story, as I did recently in a webinar. I hope other farmers can learn from it.
We need other technologies, too. I’ve already seen the power of GM technology to improve Indian agriculture, and perhaps the new science of gene editing will lead to innovations that thwart the locusts.
We must be open to every kind of positive development—and that includes innovation in crop-protection technologies, despite the resistance they sometimes encounter from critics who don’t understand the hazards of farming.
Right now, several of these tools are helpful but limited because they can be used only when the locusts have settled down for the night and they require special care near inhabited areas. They are mainly applied by tractor-mounted sprayers, but in the future drones and helicopters may see more use.
If the locusts return to my village, we’ll be ready once more—but I also hope we, and our future farmers, will be able to fight with newer and better weapons.
Balwinder Singh Kang has farmed for over 30 years, growing Bt cotton, hybrid vegetables, wheat, mustard, chickpeas and raising cows, goats and backyard poultry in Rajasthan, India. Balwinder is an advocate for innovative agriculture technology and is a member of the Global Farmer Network. www.globalfarmernetwork.org