Countries devastated by desert locusts in East Africa have begun trials on the effectiveness of a bio-control pesticide against the hoppers even as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warns that bigger swarms are gaining momentum in one of the worst infestations in the region yet.
The FAO has started trials of the fungi-based bio-control called Metharizium acridum, known by brand name Green Muscle, in parts of Kenya, and Ethiopia. Somalia, which previously did not have any control efforts, already started using the bio-control pesticide last.
Samples of the product have also been sent to Pakistan and India where the locust situation is getting worse.
Green Muscle joins previous control operations that have included aerial and ground spraying of affected areas with pesticides using ultra Low volume chemical formulations Malathion and Fenitrothion.
Kenya Permanent Secretary for Agriculture Prof Hamadi Iddi Boga, told The EastAfrican the product has proved to work better than chemicals "provided it is applied on time to hopper bands before swarming starts. This is a biological product as opposed to a chemical pesticide where you use an organism to kill another."
A bio-control pesticide is a biological weapon which only kills the target insect without affecting non-target insects, the environment and human health.
Already, tens of thousands of hectares of farmland and pasture have been damaged by locusts in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea.
GREEN MUSCLE EFFICIENCY
"This outbreak could not only threaten the livelihoods and food security of residents, but the respective countries' economies as well," FAO one of the principal agencies leading the fight against the desert locust crisis has warned.
It is hoped the newly introduced bio-pesticide based on a specific isolate of Metarhizium acridum fungus which only attacks locusts and grasshoppers, effectively stopping them in their tracks will be more effective.
"Metarhizium acridum has been found to be effective against locusts and has been developed into a biological control pesticide. We are using fungi to kill the locusts. The fungus is specific to locust and the grasshopper class of insects. It is most effective when used against the locusts at the hopper stage," explained Prof Boga.
"It invades the hopper's system and when they are infected they start infecting each other because the hoppers always band together and don't move very far. So it infects them and then you can come back and monitor to see if it has been effective," he added.
"It infects the hoppers and causes them to die within five days. It has been our wish to move away from chemical insecticides and this presents as an alternative," he said. It works against the locusts at the hopper stage.
He said the ministry had been seeking an environment-friendly pesticide which had not been available until now.
He said unlike the chemical pesticides in use elsewhere, once the fungi infects the locusts it continues to multiply amongst the other locusts, making it more cost-effective as an exterminator.
"If the fungi are able to multiply in the environment, then this is going to be very good," he said. But noted that they were eager to see what the results will be, given that the areas the bio-control weapon was being tested were too hot and it is unknown how they would react to the environment.
The product known by the trade name Green Muscle and manufactured by Éléphant Vert, stems from a programme called LUBILOSA "LUtte BIologique contre les Locustes et Sauteriaux", (biological control of locusts and grasshoppers), which was funded by the governments of Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Britain and the USA.
In 2009, the FAO reported that the product, had effectively treated 10,000 hectares of Red Locust-infested land in Tanzania and again to great effect in Madagascar.
The Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) has also been part of the multi-agency response to the locust problem in countries including Kenya, which is said to be suffering the worst infestation in 70 years. CABI said research has confirmed that Green Muscle is effective against various species including desert locusts.