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Scientists court green pesticide to court voracious locusts

Kenyan scientists are actively vouching for widespread uptake of a locust biopesticide, whose success in Tanzania saved over 15million people from starvation, at a time when over 100,000 farmers in the country have between this and last year recorded upto 40 percent low yields to locust invasion.

Locust swarms lay waste to crops, with just a small part of a swarm, around a tonne of locusts, eating the same amount of food in one day as around 2,500 people, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Traditional synthetic pesticides have offered low respite due to the harm they cause to the environment and the soil. However the biopesticide Dubbed Green Muscle®, is proving a sure bet thanks to its environmental friendly nature and its non toxic nature on the locusts’ predators. “This means that even birds that feed on the dead locusts cant be harmed,”said Dr. Wilfred Otani from The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE)  who is among the chief campaigners of the biopesticide.

Green Muscle consists of spores of the fungus Metarhizium anisopliae suspended in mineral oils. The fungi grow in the locust, producing a toxin and weakening them, making them easy prey for birds and lizards. Most infected locusts die within 1–3 weeks, depending on the temperature and humidity. The pesticide has an 80 per cent mortality rate. It kills only locusts and grasshoppers, unlike chemical pesticides, which can harm a wide range of organisms. Even the birds and lizards that eat the treated locusts suffer no side effects.

The muscle can persist in the ground for several weeks to a year after spraying, continuing to attack and kill locusts and grasshoppers. In 2005, a locust invasion hit Tanzania. However a swift intervention approach by the Food and Agricultural Organization FAO prevented a full blown invasion that could have affected the food crops of around 15 million people in the region.

The organization also scaled its uptake in Malawi, Mozambique and Senegal, countries that are constantly threatened by grasshoppers. “Its affordability is another of its selling point. A hectare can be sprayed with a dose worth just $17(Sh1500) and majority of small scale farmers dont even have a hectare, so you can see the economic sense,”added Dr Otani.

Only recently Turkana farmers woke to the horror of locust invasion in their farms on a scale never experienced before which brought yields down by a staggering 40 percent. Agricultural officials from the area said more than 10 acres of the irrigated crop land has been hit by the locust invasion, whose origin couldnt be traced.

The deadliest locust invasion in Kenya was in 2007, when desert locusts from Ethiopia crossed to Kenya and descended on farms around Mandera town of North Eastern province, which had been struggling to be food secure. More than 200 farming families lost their vegetable and cereal crops, with many more losing their livestock, due to locusts invading their pasture.

The families were placed under relief aid for a whole year having lost everything on their farms.
However, scientists saw it as a wake up call and have been pushing for preparedness, as Kenya still remains vulnerable to more attacks due to its shared border with locust invested Ethiopia. Green Muscle® was developed by biocontrol scientists of IITA, working with the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) in the UK over a 10-year period as part of an international research consortium called LUBILOSA (LUtte BIologique contre les LOcustes et les SAuteriaux, or Biological Control of Locusts and Grasshoppers) set up in 1989.

Large-scale testing of the biopesticide began in 1996, followed by on-farm trials conducted with organizations including CARE, AFRICARE, national agricultural research partners and local farmer associations. The formulation was approved by FAO in 1997.  It was released in the market in 2000.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter

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