Chinese factories are producing thousands of tonnes of a “green zombie fungus” to help fight the swarms of locusts in East Africa. Metarhizium is a genus of fungi with nearly 50 species – some genetically modified – that is used as a biological insecticide because its roots drill through the insects’ hard exoskeleton and gradually poisons them. In China it was named lu jiang jun , which means green zombie fungus, because it gradually turns its victims in a green mossy lump. There are now dozens of factories across the country dedicated to producing its spores and despite the curbs introduced to stop the spread of Covid-19, many of them have resumed operations and are shipping thousands of tonnes to Africa. Plague fears as massive East Africa locust outbreak spreads These factories are set up in a similar way to breweries, growing the spores on rice which is kept in carefully controlled conditions to ensure the correct temperature and humidity. Each plant can produce thousands of tonnes of fungi powder per year, each gram of which contains tens of billions of spores. “I am sending off a truckload right now. Our stock is running out,” said the marketing manager of a production plant in Jiangxi province. “Some customers need it urgently. They need it to kill the locusts.” The need is particularly pressing in East Africa at the moment, where abnormally high levels of rainfall during the dry season allowed hundreds of billions of locusts to hatch in recent months. So far the swarms have devastated crops in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda and are moving on to neighbouring countries. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned the situation could be the “worst in decades” and the resulting famine may affect 13 million people and cause international food prices to soar. Last week, Science magazine reported that the Somalian government, working with the FAO, was preparing to a metarhizium species that only kills locusts and grasshoppers in what it described as the largest ever use of biopesticides against the insects. Scientists do not believe that the fungus will be enough to solve the problem – monitoring the outbreak and targeting their breeding grounds will be more important in the long-run – but if it proves effective it could be an important weapon to target future outbreaks. It will take time to gauge the effectiveness, partly because each fungus will take several days to take effect and partly because of the sheer scale of the challenge; a single swarm in Kenya was estimated to contain between 100 billion and 200 billion locusts. By fair means or fowl: how Chinese herdsmen are planning to stop a locust invasion The locusts have also swept eastward into the Middle East, travelling up to 150km (90 miles) a day, and are moving closer to China now that they have now reached some of its neighbours, including India and Pakistan. At present China’s agriculture ministry believes some locusts may follow the monsoon into the country but “the chances of them causing damage is very small”. Most scientists agree the swarms will not have lasting effect on food production but say developing countries can tap into China’s cutting-edge anti-locust technology. Radar stations have been set up all the way along China’s western and southern borders to detect possible clouds of locusts, while unmanned devices lure the insects into traps to collect data about their species population and size. The data is streamed to the ministry’s programme command, which is responsible for the planning and coordination of the national efforts to prevent an outbreak. The scientists also said that planes loaded with biological and chemical sprays were standing by. Today, most locust outbreaks happen in developing countries that do not have advanced monitoring networks and some of them are unable to produce pesticides on a mass scale, according to Li Hu, an associate professor with the China Agricultural University in Beijing. The Chinese locust treatment technologies were highly advanced, and usually cheaper than competing solutions from the West, he said. Chinese researchers are now working with colleagues in other countries to help them solve the problem. One disadvantage of the Chinese research is that it is mostly focused on local species, or the East Asia migratory locust. The desert locusts currently swarming East Africa have different genes and behaviour, and Li warned that some methods that work in China might not work elsewhere. A giant indoor farm in China is breeding 6 billion cockroaches a year. Here's why There were some sightings of the species reported in Yunnan and Tibet in the past, but they did not build up to large colonies, Professor Kang Le, lead scientist of the locust research programme with the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, told China Science Daily last week. The vast west China region of Xinjiang, which shares a border with eight countries, is currently too cold for a locust migration, but once temperatures start to rise in the spring it could see locusts swarming across the border with Afghanistan. Shi Wangpeng, a senior government locust expert, told China Business Network on Sunday that China should be on high alert because many Afghan farms had already been affected. “These areas share a long border with us, there are almost no barriers,” he was quoted as saying by the Shanghai-based magazine. China has a long and bitter history of locust swarms, with more than 840 being recorded in the official records over the past 2,700 years. One famine, in the year 628 was so devastating that even the Tang dynasty emperor Taizong was reported to have run short of food and resorted to eating the insects to survive. This, in turn, means that China’s rulers have long been looking for innovative ways to solve the problem In the past farmers tried remedies such as building huge fires, burying the insects in ditches or trying to kill them with sticks. In one campaign organised by prime minister Yao Chong in 715, the farms collected 9 million sacks of dead locusts and managed to save a significant proportion of their crops, according to historic text. In more recent times more sophisticated technologies have been deployed to tackle the menace. Some researchers have spent decades chasing locust colonies and studying their individual and collective behaviour everywhere from coastal areas to inland deserts, and in 2014 Chinese scientists released the world’s most comprehensive genetic map of locusts. Researchers have also developed chemical agents that can disorient swarms of locusts and disperse them. Chinese scientists first became interested in the green zombie’s potential in the 1980s after discovering that South Pacific islanders had been using them to kill insects on coconut trees. Research by US scientists confirmed its effectiveness in the 1990s and the Chinese started importing the fungus from the United States and Britain. Their experiments led to the development of newer and deadlier strains and mass production started in the past decade. Other fungi or bacteria can be used to fight locusts, and some laboratories are working with agricultural technology companies to modify their genes to turn them into more deadly or precise killers. One genetically engineered species of microsporidia, another type of insect-killing fungus, for instance, can generate three times as many as the spores to those produced by nature species, according to a document from the China Association of Agricultural Science Societies last year. While it remains to be seen whether the current swarms will reach China, these treatments have been effective in the past and there has not been a locust outbreak in China for a decade. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). 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