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INSECT PLAGUE ALERT

Act now or face bigger locust swarms and greater crop losses, Agri SA warns

Act now or face bigger locust swarms and greater crop losses, Agri SA warns

Agri SA is calling on the government to start working on locust outbreaks and take proactive measures before the spring rains bring ‘devastating’ swarms.

With spring rains already falling on parts of the country, Agri South Africa is warning of a larger locust outbreak than last year if the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) takes no proactive measures now to head off the summer swarms.

Andrea Campher, Agri SA’s risk and disaster manager, told Daily Maverick they are extremely worried that summer will bring such an outbreak if nothing is done.

This would affect agricultural yields as well as “the capacity to control the magnitude of the outbreak”. 

“In 2021/22, more than 23 million hectares of land were affected by locust outbreaks; this was the worst outbreak in 25 years. During this period, the land was infiltrated by locusts, suggesting another bad year for farmers in the coming growing period,” Campher said.

“As much as 90% of the 23 million hectares of the infiltrated land is agricultural land. Unless urgent action is taken, 2023 could see even greater losses.”

Campher said outbreaks are already in full swing in parts of the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape.

“With the above-normal rains expected this summer, according to the South African Weather Service, we can expect devastating swarms in the 2022/23 summer season as locust eggs on the infiltrated land hatch. Despite the magnitude of the threat facing the sector, timeous renewal of contracts of locust officers in the affected provinces did not take place, which poses a risk to locust control operations.”

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Agri SA had secured an urgent meeting with Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza and department director-general Mooketsa Ramasodi’s office to discuss its response to the looming disaster.

“Among the issues under discussion will be the urgent issuing of locust officers’ contracts which have not been finalised, securing pesticide supplies and spraying equipment, the distribution of protective equipment for officers, training of new officers, the capacity of the [department] to finalise payment claims, and to resume an open line of communication with [the department] to implement workable solutions.”

Campher said several challenges encountered in 2021 and 2022 needed to be addressed as well before 2023.

“Previously, many of these issues were only addressed with the assistance of private-sector funding to mitigate the impact of public-sector shortcomings. On a positive note, DALRRD revised the fuel tariffs from 2013 for this coming locust season which will ensure sustainable controlling operations for officers.”

Campher said Agri SA and its affiliates will continue to make every effort to ensure that farmers are protected from the worst effects of the outbreak, and minimal disruption of food supplies.

Most of the locust officers’ contracts had not been finalised last week, which would affect the fight against the outbreak since they would be unable to act in time.

“Some of the areas that have been infiltrated by these locusts have not received locusts for more than 50 years and when the rains start, these areas will be badly affected,” she added.

Survival on the hop

Professor Frances Duncan, head of the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, said locust eggs can survive in the soil for several years, with the embryos developing at different rates in response to environmental conditions.

“In some eggs there’s a delay in the embryo development regardless of the moisture available, whereas in other eggs the embryo will start development as soon as moisture is available… All embryos, from both egg types, can reduce their rate of development when environmental conditions are unfavourable.” 

Duncan said the embryos wait for enough moisture to complete development.

“This results in synchronised hatching when there’s sufficient rain, as all the embryos are at the same stage of development regardless of when the eggs were deposited. The solitary females tend to lay their eggs in the same areas and thus there is a build-up of eggs in particular areas. How the females find these egg-laying sites is unknown.”

While many of the eggs remained in the soil, some hatched and produced the solitary form of the locust, maintaining the population at a low level.

“This contributes to the build-up of eggs. With the onset of good summer rains, synchronised hatching occurs along with the growth of grass. The grass found in the region has long-lived seeds which germinate with the onset of rain, providing food for the hoppers.

“A pheromone found in locust faeces stimulates the hoppers to aggregate and develop into the gregarious phase if the population density is high. These hoppers form bands and move up to 8km per day in search of food, competing with livestock for the available grazing,” she said.

New contracts issued

DALRRD spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said the department had worked through winter because it had not been cold enough to destroy the locusts. 

“So there is no coming season for us. The control of locusts is continuing where outbreaks are reported. All those who worked well will be considered by the department for the renewal of their contracts. There are those who are old and those who passed away and those who did not perform their duties to the satisfaction of their supervisors — unfortunately their contracts won’t be renewed and people will be employed to close that gap,” he said.

New contracts were being issued in areas where outbreaks had been reported. 

“We wish to remind farm owners that it is their duty and responsibility by law as landowners to monitor, report and control the outbreak of locusts. Government assists where necessary,” Ngcobo added. 

The Northern Cape department of agriculture, environmental affairs, rural development and land reform has confirmed that the first brown locust outbreak this season occurred in Upington, Kliprand, Gamoep, Carnarvon and Loeriesfontein.

According to the department’s MEC, Mase Manopole, the outbreak is a result of warmer conditions and enough moisture still in the soil after recent rains.

“More outbreaks are expected in other districts as the weather becomes warmer and rain is expected in various parts of the province. With assistance from the National Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, teams of locust controllers were activated and dispatched to control the outbreak in affected areas and nearby farms,” she said.

Manopole called on landowners and farmers to cooperate with controlling teams by allowing them access to their premises to control the swarm. DM/OBP

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