Locust plague threatens food security in Pakistan amid pandemic

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By Hina Arya

Pakistan is an agricultural country and its agricultural sector hugely supports the populace and GDP by 26 percent. With the world’s largest man-made irrigation system, the major agricultural products of Pakistan are wheat, cotton, rice, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables. The sector supports three quarters of Pakistan’s population, employs half its labor force and contributes a significant share of foreign exchange earnings. Needless to say, any kind of disruption to the industry will result in a critical national crisis.
Some of the long-standing gaps between yield and actual to-the-market output have hampered Pakistan in realizing its full potential in the agriculture sector. Pakistan has fertile land, resilient farmers and wonderfully supportive weather conditions for yielding numerous crops, fruits and vegetables in a year. With enhancements in technology, appropriate use of inputs at proper times, optimal utilization of water and land use and an effective insect and pest control strategy, the amount of produce can significantly be increased and Pakistan’s agricultural industry can be a source of foreign revenue given all its advantages.
As the world deals with the COVID-19 virus, the global economy has been severely impacted. Meanwhile, a lesser spoken of infestation is gorging on Pakistan’s resources: the worst locust plague in three decades– swarms of insects that can potentially decimate entire harvests in a matter of days.
The compounding effect of the two crises could have an exponentially large effect on Pakistan’s agriculture sector which is already dealing with systemic challenges. The threat of the locust swarms is so great that after its outbreak in both Sindh and Punjab provinces, Pakistan declared a national emergency on Feb. 1.
Locusts are actually special kinds of grasshoppers known for their gregariousness — and not in a good way. Around 20 species of the 7,000 known grasshopper varieties transform into what’s known as a gregarious phenotype, which means their bodies actually change as they socialize into swarms. Normally given to living on their own, they change color and grow bigger muscles as they gather into massive clouds, rolling across landscapes and devastating crops.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in a recent report has warned of a potentially serious food security crisis this year in several regional countries, including Pakistan, due to locust attacks.

According to the report, Pakistan and Iran in the eastern region are especially prone as locust breeding takes place in these areas at a rapid scale due to this year’s wet winter.
Cotton as a crop constitutes 10 percent of the country’s GDP, contributes 55 percent in foreign exchange earnings of Pakistan, and is a key source of livelihood for the rural populace. It has been damaged badly by the locust plague and this damage may cut the country’s economic growth to approximately two percent for the fiscal year ending in June 2020.
It has been estimated by the ministry of food security that losses to the agricultural sector associated with the locust invasion could reach about Rs205 billion– these estimates are based on a 15 percent impact to production of wheat, gram and potatoes only. At 25 percent damage level, the total potential losses are estimated to be about Rs353 billion for winter crops, and about Rs464 billion for summer crops.
Pakistan has limited resources and a lack of policy to tackle the locusts – it is already dealing with COVID-19. To mitigate the combined damage from the locust plague and COVID-19 related partial lockdowns, a national action plan is badly needed to combat locusts in all four provinces of the country.
China has historically been a friend to Pakistan and with its vastly advanced agricultural techniques has extended its support in tackling the situation– in fact a team of Chinese technical officials has already visited to assess the situation. The team presented its aerial and ground assessments to the government and the technical team has been asked to prepare a comprehensive report, based on which Chinese assistance will be determined and a national policy formulated against the infestation.
While the federal government deliberates a national action plan to combat locust attacks, provinces have the liberty to formulate their own policy – a provincial action plan through provisions of the 18th amendment. Provincial governments must take all the necessary measures to control further locust spread and damage. Provinces can buy/lease planes for aerial spray, which is the most effective in controlling the spread of locusts. Currently, Pakistan has one or two planes for aerial spraying, having the capacity of spraying only five to six percent of the plantation area of the country. This may well prove to be severely inadequate and the faster Pakistan addresses the situation, the better they can manage the changing situation.
Now, Pakistan has to handle the locust plague on a war footing and get as much help as possible from China and other states. If the country does not act now, grave consequences loom over the horizon.
(Hina Ayra is an economist, business consultant and a writer. Twitter: @HinaAyra)