Individual farmers stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of grain crops - but we are being soothed with the assurance that the NSW government has an "arsenal" on standby to tackle the locust attack.
What's in the government's arsenal? Mostly toxic chemicals, such as:
* fipronil - a broad spectrum insecticide which is highly toxic to all insects (including non-target species), as well as fish, aquatic invertebrates, and many species of bird.
* fenitrothion and malathion - both of which are organophosphate pesticides. These insecticides are considered to be "slightly toxic" to birds and aquatic organisms, but, if it happens to get into your body, malathion breaks down into the far more toxic chemical malaoxon.
Generally speaking, organophosphate pesticides irreversibly inactivate acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme which is essential to nerve function in insects, humans, and many other animals.
Organophosphate poisoning can cause a slew of symptoms ranging from sweating and headaches, through to weakness, tremors, loss of coordination, and loss of consciousness.
Spraying with fipronil; playing with fire.
Fipronil is one of the main chemical causes blamed for the spread of colony collapse disorder among bees. Fipronil is deadly to bees, but even at sub-lethal doses, fipronil has been shown to reduce bees' navigational abilities.
Being able to navigate to and from the hive is central to bees' survival. And bees (as pollinators) play a critical role in the production of many fruits, vegetables, and nuts for human consumption. If we lose bees, we also lose an awful lot of food.
But just how toxic is chemical locust control to other "non-target" species? Consider this anecdote from Peter Bennett, on p.52 of his book Organic Gardening (6th edition):
The destruction of magpies and many other insect-feeding birds over large areas where locust plagues have been ineffetively sprayed at great expense is all part of the same great tragedy. I well remember one farmer in Victoria a few years ago, who, when driving me to Melbourne from his farm in the Shepparton district, spotted a common magpie feeding near the roadside and pointed it out to me with almost wild excitement. I exclaimed "So what!", whereupon he explained to me that magpies, normally resident in tens of thousands in that locality, had not been seen for years; since the last Dieldrin attack on grasshoppers.If I had the government's locust-control budget at my disposal, I'd fill my arsenal with locust-loving birds. Chickens would be my first choice.
I suspect that most people would laugh at the idea of using chickens to control locusts, but I have to ask: why not?
Some of the obvious questions / objections are:
Q. Surely you'd need millions of chickens to eat all those locusts?
A. Australians already slaughter well over one-and-a-quarter million chickens every day. (According to the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, a total of 470 million chickens were slaughtered for meat in Australia last year).
Q. How would all those birds be transported?
A. Hundreds of millions of chickens are already transported to slaughterhouses in Australia, so chicken transport on a very large commercial scale is nothing new. Furthermore, Joel Salatin of Polyface farm has proven the validity of mobile chicken houses.
Q. Would modern, over-bred chickens know what to do with a field of locusts?
A. Believe it or not, the Chinese have already addressed this very issue, by training birds to eat locusts before sending them out into the field to clean up. (The Chinese have found ducks to be even more effective at eating locusts than chickens - but we don't currently have a large duck industry in Australia).
... authorities in the worst-affected Xinjiang province in China have recruited locust-eating ducks to combat the menace, the official Xinhua news agency has reported.
The "duck soldiers," specially trained by farmer Yang Dayuan, are capable of eating more than a pound of locusts every day. What's more, they even eat locust eggs that are laid in the marshy alkaline wastelands.
An environmentally friendly locust-crunching method, the duck soldiers add a boost to the circle of life, Yang told the British daily The Times. "The ducks will grow healthy and fat and will get a higher price on the market after they retire from pest-control duty."
Q. Australia is a very big country - how would you know where to take the birds to?
A. The same way that you know where to spray your pesticides. According to the NSW Locust Control Program Strategy:
Land managers [e.g. farmers] are the frontline in the successful monitoring and control of locusts. It is vital (and a requirement under the Act) that they take action to notify their local LHPA of any presence of locusts on their land and control locusts.Q. Wouldn't the locusts just fly away when the birds arrived?
A. Not if the timing is right. After they hatch and emerge from their underground "pods", locust nymphs have to moult several times before they finally develop fully-formed wings. The locusts literally "band" together (on foot) for weeks before taking flight. Hence, according to the NSW Locust Control Program Strategy:
Ground control is the most effective and efficient method of controlling plague locusts. The locust nymphs are most easily controlled when they congregate together into bands. This is also when locust numbers are at their densest.So, regardless of whether your weapon of choice is toxic chemicals or hungry birds, the best option is to attack the locusts before they're able to fly away.
Q. Do you honestly think that controlling locusts with birds is possible?
A. Absolutely. After all, farmers already use birds to control locusts in Asia and Africa.
Certainly, it would be much cheaper and easier to use chickens to control locusts on, say, a 7 acre farm than on a 7,000 acre farm. But that being the case, maybe, as a nation, we Aussies need to completely re-think our concept of "modern" agriculture, which enables (and, indeed, encourages) the very existence of 7,000 acre farms.