Call to action: Pest control actors should join hands to curtail harmful impact of rodents on India’s food production

Ecologically based rodent management has great opportunity to be adopted in the states of Madhya Pradesh & Jharkhand

Farmers can be advised not to kill snakes, monitor lizards, mongoose, foxes, weasels in the fields, as these animals naturally help in controlling rodent population. Photo: Carlos Aranguiz / Shuttershock via MetaMeta

The issue of rodent damage in agricultural lands, affecting both pre- and post-harvest yields, persists despite advancements in agricultural technology. 

These rodents not only wreak havoc on agricultural produce (farmers report average damage of 25 per cent in field and storage), but also contribute to the spread of diseases and destruction of household items. Their impact is felt everywhere, be it rural or urban. 

The problem remains although there is good understanding of the anatomy and behaviour of the animals as well as of the preventive measures that can be taken to help farmers in the country improve the quantity and quality of their yields. 

Ecologically based rodent management (EBRM) is a comprehensive set of such measures. It is an eco-friendly approach to control rodents effectively, where traditional and modern methods are combined in one package. 

This approach has great opportunity to be adopted in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand in India, as the Adivasi people living in this tribal belt of India are well aware of the rodent species, their behaviour and impact. 

Recent modernisation in agriculture that has resulted in increased food and rice production has attracted more rats, thus increasing their population. This has led to farmers not being able to manage rodents effectively by merely using traditional methods. 

It requires more than that. EBRM presents this solution. It is built on three pillars: Collective effort,  timing and combination of methods. These pillars are essential for effective rodent control. 

Timing EBRM well, making it part of the standard rodent pest management procedure and combining effective methods can truly make the difference. 

The agricultural practices and natural resource management under EBRM may include the following measures:

  • Weeds and grasses must be managed in the crop fields and peripheral surroundings to reduce hiding places and food options for rodents. So, by removing these from time to time, we can reduce attractiveness of fields to rodents thereby reducing their population in a particular area.
  • Planting crops in lines and spacing between crop lines also helps to expose rats and limit their hiding places, thus reducing their movement options.
  • Permanent bunds and water channels around the fields act as rodent reservoirs. Rodents live in these areas by making their permanent burrows and from here they can migrate to adjacent crop fields and cause damage. Rodents prefer to make burrows in bunds which are thick and high. Actions that should take place include: destroying burrows (especially before planting season) and reducing height and width of bunds (e.g. 1ft by 1ft).
  • While irrigating crops, rodent burrows get flooded with water and rodents start coming out of their burrows. At that time, we can kill those animals coming out manually with sticks, trap them by setting traps and with the help of their natural enemies such as dogs, cats, owls etc.
  • Farmers can be advised not to kill snakes, monitor lizards, mongoose, foxes, etc. in the fields, as these animals naturally help in controlling rodent population.
  • Further, we can conserve the population of birds of prey like owls, eagles, kites etc. by installing artificial nest boxes suitable for these species, by installing T-shaped perches in the fields and by growing more of traditional trees which can be occupied by these birds.
  • For post-harvest storage, traditional storage structures can be made rodent proof by including materials like tin and metal sheets, preventing entry of rodent and preventing them from climbing. Methods for doing so are available.
  • The store house should be kept clean and without hiding places to reduce its attractiveness to rodents.
  • We must ensure compatibility with new agronomic practices like mulching and zero tillage.
  • Further, critical timings to start control operation in a particular crop, and collaboration with neighbouring farmers are also important.

EBRM can be integrated with (regenerative) agricultural practices and natural resource management. At the same time, EBRM offers opportunities for promoting livelihoods that stimulate the local economy. How do we see EBRM fitting into this?

Regenerative agriculture is all about increasing yields and healthier products, while ensuring the sustainable use of our natural resources. EBRM aims for just that and does so by providing alternative biological and ecological rodent management methods. 

These are a much-needed alternative to conventional chemical methods that cause harm to the environment and non-target species. EBRM is entirely chemical free, aims at prevention rather than killing and is based on robust knowledge of rat’s habitat and behaviour. 

By reducing rodent damage, we can increase yields and ensure higher quality and safety of crops.

Moreover, different rat species have specific habitat preferences — they like stone bunds to take shelter, soft soils with high soil moisture to easily dig burrows and vegetative cover to hide for predators. Thus, a vibrant water catchment with healthy soils often means rats can also thrive. 

Therefore, it is important to figure out which rat habitat functions we can control to reduce pest species to become abundant, while sustainably managing natural resources. 

Lastly, there is ample opportunity to produce biological products which are completely natural and have a 100 per cent local value chain. Furthermore, there are opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to innovate rodent-proof storage and provide EBRM services. This means  micro-enterprises, entrepreneurs and innovators can generate jobs, making rural economy lively again. 

As one can see, EBRM fulfils a critical role in the entire rural development landscape and it offers opportunities for a diversity of residents. 

Actors for EBRM pest management

All these actors have a role and responsibility in helping to develop the agricultural sector in India. For instance, the National Institute of Plant Health Management has developed training manuals and organises training programmes for stakeholders (farmers and staff) as well. 

The Agricultural University of Punjab has extensive expertise in the management of rodents in the field and is involved in monitoring and research on the different rodent species, among other things. 

PRADAN is building capacity with women self-help groups on regenerative agriculture, improving yields in a sustainable way and diversifying livelihood options. 

Like we preach to communities to control rodents collectively, we must also come together to tackle this issue at scale in an integrated manner. Each organisation has important knowledge, skills and connections to bring in, that will greatly boost wide-scale uptake of EBRM. 

Making it an integral part of our work can take us the next mile and help many more farmers to effectively control rodents and improve food production. 

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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