Photo credit: Janice Limson
Squadrons of aeroplanes dumping pesticides on agricultural land to head off locust invasions could be a thing of the past if a mushroom-based organic product currently being tested in Mauritania is successful.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Mauritanian Locust Centre are testing a clean biological agent meant to wipe out locusts, following an invasion in October in the remote northeast of the country, 200 km from the capital Nouakchott.
The product being tested has already been given a name by its South African producers: Green Muscle.
Locusts pose a deadly threat in Africa, where many impoverished, agriculture-dependent communities live on a fine balance, which can too easily tip into hunger. Swarms of locusts can reach longer than 40 km and carry billions of insects capable of stripping fields of crops in seconds.
Green Muscle's producers have been waiting to conduct a test since 2005, but have not seen enough locusts in one place at the same time.
"The product itself has existed since 1998 but the active material, the mushroom, was found in 1989 in Niger," said Christiaan Kooyman, insect specialist at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Cotonou, Benin.
The mushroom works slowly, taking between three days and three weeks, according to the intensity of the doses administered.
"The spore fall on the locusts, germinates on their skin, the germination tube penetrates into their interior, and the mushroom starts to invade all the tissues," Kooyman explained.
Laboratory tests have already shown the efficacy of the mushroom method.
"We know that it kills - it can give a 90 percent mortality rate in the laboratory, but in the heat, and if we transport it for long distances, we do not know," said Sid'Ahmed ould Hohamed, researcher at the Mauritanian Locust Centre.
"It is not a trial, but an operational test. We want to subject the product to normal conditions in the Sahel zone to see the adaptation of the mushroom to the local climatic conditions," he said. "It is necessary to understand how the mushroom reacts in relation to the temperatures because we know that if it is too high, it will not develop, if it is too low, it reacts very slowly."
On the ground, an unexpected bonus has already been observed - local wildlife are lapping up the mushroom-flavoured larvae even before the mushrooms have done their deadly work.
"We have observed predators of all kinds, like birds, lizards, wasps and beetles are attacking the larvae in large numbers. The larvae are becoming more sluggish and they are becoming weaker," said Wim Mullie, expert in the sub-regional bureau of the locusts at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO) in Dakar.
"The presence of the predators is impeding [the crickets], they complete the work of the mushrooms," Mullie said.
If the trial is concluded successfully, the product will have found its place in the arms chest in the fight against locusts in Africa, although researchers believe it will be some time before the chemical formulas normally used are replaced with organic alternatives.
"The biological lobby has never been so strong on the continent," Kooyman said. The scientists acknowledge also that the slow process of killing may be seen as ineffective by the teams that prefer to use a radical chemical treatment.
Nonetheless, the FAO has already committed to make Green Muscle a major plank of its activities, if the tests prove successful.
"The Mauritanian test is not local or national, it will serve all the sub-region if it is positive," said Thami Benhalima, executive secretary for the FAO commission on locusts. - IRIN