White-Flies Attack: The Lawyer’s Perspective

“Men should stop fighting among themselves and start fighting insects”

Luthor Burbank

Agriculture is demographically the broadest economic sector and plays a significant role in socio-economic framework of any country. Growing crops has been the practice of the earliest societies of the human kind. It was among the first and foremost human activities ever observed by modern day historians. Even if we over look this fact, Agriculture is the main source of income in many families of India mainly rural population. Primitive methods have been practiced since ages to grow crops; techniques for better outputs have been developed as well as changed time to time. This dynamic and pervasive activity requires a spotlight on the problem of Insect invasion particularly, the white flies. This small white insect grows into an adult with a life of one to two months but the damage they cause may last for a year or more. Many generations take birth per year and have become a prominent problem for the farmers.

Attacks of this insect were first reported in 1999 in Kolar region of South India and the problems kept rising till date. This article will focus on the root cause of this problem touching the aspects of International law involved along with a brief discussion on Target 9.  In the second half of the article, Regulatory bodies and India’s coping mechanisms have been concluded with recommendations of the author.

Natural history and Rise of White Flies:

The main aim of cultivation is healthy crops and fertile lands. This purpose is defeated by the pests and parasites that grow in and around the budding crops, among them are sap-sucking White Flies. Having a number of species, they are commonly called tobacco flies or snow flies. Whitefly populations can develop very rapidly in warm weather and the greatest populations usually occur in spring and autumn.1 Due to warmer weathers being a favourable condition for them, India is a great region for this insect to grow in every crop season, this peninsular plateau has diverse types of agro-climatic zones. This destructive plant species is reported to attack and damage about 600 species of plants.2

Reapers in dilemma:

Farmers of India are the sole heroes who are responsible for food production in India, from staples to pulses, form cloth materials to beverages, from rubbers to stationary products; every commodity is based on the crop production. Major economic section comprises of the primary sector that is agriculture. They grow crops, sow and reap them. But the new elephant in the room are White Flies. The increasing population of white flies is making the farmers very difficult to grow crops. Flies act as a carrier of approx 111 viruses3 which infects the crops that can affect plant growth causing distortion, discoloration, yellowing or silvering of leaves. This can be understood by two spheres of farming universe:

  • Nature of damage

They directly damage the crops by feeding on the undersides of plant leaves. These flies are hemipteran and eat the sides from their blade-like two channelled tubes by sucking the juices which results in total devastation of the crop. The yielding capacity reduces as the population rises.

  • Virus transmission

They are a vector of many viruses which pollute the ultimate production by secreting a sticky substance turning the plant into moulds of sooty fungus. This mould is to be removed before the marketing of the fruit/vegetable.

  • Unavailability of Insecticides

No effective insecticide is available which can easily kill the whiteflies and prevent them from harming the crops

In 2015, after the whiteflies attack in Punjab, around 15 farmers were reported to have committed suicide due to the loss of their crops and land. Thus, this is an alarming concern for the authorities to come up with measures to prevent the spread of whiteflies.

Legal outlook and Global identification of this problem

Initially, The Press Information Bureau of India released a Report4 based on whiteflies as an emerging problem; they are one of the top ten devastating pests in the world that damage more than 2000 plant species and also function as vectors for some 200-plant viruses.

In 2005, The International Union for conservation of nature recognised the problem of white flies through a report which stated that the attacks of this species is reported from all continents except from Antarctica which lead this species to have their place in the list of global invasion species database. The species is found to possibly be originated in India5

According to a former publication of science daily, this species has become one of the Invasive alien species claiming it to be the worst of them. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) provides definitions for both ‘invasive alien species’ and ‘alien species’. It is worth noting that the IUCN definition of ‘alien species’ is equivalent to the CBD definition of ‘invasive alien species’. The key element of both definitions is the threat that invasive alien species cause to biodiversity.

International law began to concentrate on alien species more than 50 years ago. There are now over 40 binding international agreements -not all of them so far in force -that demote either directly or indirectly to alien species. There are two Asia-centric agreements related to alien species: the 1956 Plant Protection Agreement for the Asia and Pacific Region, which is an auxiliary agreement under the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) which further aims to prevent the introduction and spread of plant pests; and the 1985 ASEAN Agreement on the Conservation of Nature, which is not yet in force. There is no regional or global legal instrument that scrupulously governs alien species.

The most Important of them in the context of the problem of white flies, is Stockholm conference of 1972 which not only strengthened the framework of future environment cooperation but also led to establishment of global and regional environmental networks improving the environmental problems such as invasion of white flies and stimulated action to tackle them. Based on the framework of Stockholm, The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which was adopted in 1992, incorporates provisions regarding those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species like the white flies, White flies was listed among the major alien invasion species.

The United Nations Environment Assembly was also established under the conference which further led to agreements and treaties for dissolution of problems relating to alien invasion species. The international system governing alien species developed over time through various processes in retort to different needs. Treatment of alien species in international law is neither all-inclusive nor entirely unswerving. Some of the international instruments are multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) such as The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and, the World Heritage Convention all have resolutions or decisions relating to invasive alien species that treat alien species in the context of their potential impact on native species and ecosystems. Others are trade-related agreements on sanitary and phytosanitary measures that tackle alien species as pests and potential vectors for human, plant and animal diseases.6

Eventually, another problem arose in the cropping industry. The resistance history of an insect species also gives a reliable indication of the potential for future resistance problems. History shows that aphids, whiteflies and mites have a higher capacity for developing resistance than other insect groups. In public health both mosquitoes and flies have similar characteristics to these agricultural pests and are able to develop resistance to frequently used products and insecticide classes. As a response to this problem, a committee for Insecticide Resistance Action called IRAC was formed to provide a coordinated response by the crop protection industry to the problem of insecticide resistance. India is also a part of this committee contributing to the CorpLife.

Indian Government’s action for prevention and cure

In India, Cotton is one of the worst hit crops by these, in 2015 2/3rd of the cotton crop was destroyed by the pest in Punjab. In a move to fight against whiteflies, National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI)7 had developed a pest-resistant variety of cotton. To develop the pest-resistant variety researchers explored 250 plants from lower plant biodiversity to identify novel protein molecules that are toxic to whitefly.

The Whitefly IPM Projects provides a paradigm for future work on whiteflies. National Agricultural Innovative Project (NAIP) has been undertaken to aid speedy and sustainable alteration of Indian agriculture by mutual development and use of agricultural innovation by the public research organizations in partnership with the farmer’s groups, the private sector, the civil society organizations and other stakeholders. NAIP aims to achieve the objectives by supporting four components. There are additional costs in the form of pesticides applied for pest control. Knowledge and information is the key to correct pest management decisions. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a system that highlights appropriate decision-making, depends heavily on intensive, accurate and timely information for field investments. The Component 4 aims at making such investments in those front line skill areas of agricultural research that are strategically important for Indian agriculture. This project has been launched under the guidance of Indian council for Agricultural Research.8

The emergence of genetically modified crops revolutionised agriculture productivity and nutritional status of several important plants. The genetically engineered traits include pest’s resistance, herbicide tolerance and virus resistance. The department of biotechnology and ministry of environment and forests are the two apex regulatory bodies. However, to adhere white the norms of Cartagena protocol, Biotechnology bill of India will govern this arena of cropping.

A three-step process if followed in India for management of alien invasive insect species. Step one is pest risk analysis, step two is quarantine and step three is monitoring.

PRA or pest risk analysis is the process of evaluating biological or other scientific and economic evidence to determine whether an organism is a pest, whether it should be regulated, and the strength of any phytosanitary9 measures to be taken against it 

Plant quarantine facilities include: Plant quarantine measures seek at providing protection to the agriculture of a country or region against the likely havoc of alien pests/pathogens. These measures are of particular importance and relevance to countries like India whose economy is largely based on agriculture.

Monitoring: One of the major approaches for managing the invasive insects is its early detection. But the problem lies with the exact identification of the insect (to species level). Identification of the species requires proficiency in insect taxonomy which is an off-putting constraint in India. Hence the government of India has established molecular diagnostic facilities across the quarantine station for straightforward and rapid detection of invasive insects. Apart from molecular modus operandis, monitoring is also done by the use of chemical pheromones (sex pheromones and attractants) or by physical with the help of yellow sticky traps, light traps, etc.

Prevention is always better than cure. Hence, strict quarantine is the best resolution for the management of invasive insects, that is, a thorough examination of all kinds of imported goods and products in order to impede the introduction of hazardous species. Though, some other old-school practices are also followed. Biological control is an ancient practice to control introduced pests, which deals with a timely introduction (classical biological control), augmentation (mass release of native or exotic natural enemies) and conservation (habitat management) of natural enemy (predators and parasitoids) from their (invasive insect’s) native places in hope that they may reduce the invasive pest population to non-harming levels For example, Zygogramma bicolorata was introduced in India to manage Parthenium hysterophorus which ended up as a pest of sunflower. There must be prior research to prevent such introduction of natural agents which may have a negative impact. The next prompt control measure is pesticides (chemicals). Pesticides are quick acting and are very efficient in reducing or eradicating the invasive insects. But prior knowledge about the insecticide regarding its mode of action, selectivity and residual effect is very much essential while applying an insecticide to manage the invasive insect.

Legislations in regard to Invasive Alien Species and its Regulation in India

The formulation of laws to prevent the entry of invasive species ages back to 1914 when the Destructive Insects and Pests Act, 1914 was framed. With the elapse of time, these laws were modified. Presently, the primary plant quarantine concerns of India are dealt by the Plant Quarantine Order 2003. It includes new import policies with required statutory measures which aim to restrict the import of infested plants or plant products. The order advocates a prior PRA to estimate the phytosanitary measures required to protect plant resources against the invasive pest.

India pursues international quarantine set of laws. On the other hand, the Biological diversity Act, 2002 provides for a framework and mechanism of regulatory bodies to regulate the bio-diverse issues. The act provides a 3-tier structure to facilitate the conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of all the biological resources. It provides for a National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) as well as the State Biodiversity Board (SBB). Another authority is the Centre for Biodiversity Policy and Law (CEBPOL). Together the NBA and CEBPOL conduct researches and publish unbiased findings about the updated lists of Alien Invasion Species. According to their research white fly is one of the Invasive Alien Insect species in Agricultural ecosystems with maximum invasiveness and impacts.10

Evidently, this report was a result of recommendations of CBD signatories at Nagoya, UN which declared 2011-20 as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity. The convention’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, created in 2010, including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Target 9 is based on IUCN’s species programme for the control and eradication of invasive alien species.

Current scenario and its Analysis

Increasing population proportionally to pollution has led the agronomic nature of India on the verge of exploitation. The globalisation and introduction of foreign particles/ organisms are among the main reasons for invasion of insects on crops.  The success of the CBD and the IPPC in protecting plants and the environment is very much dependent on the implementation of their provisions by national governments. The prevention of the spread of invasive alien species and plant pests is primarily an international approach in which countries must cooperate to prevent the natural or man-facilitated spread of such organisms. For many developing countries and especially for least-developed countries, however, the protection of the environment may not be located high on their list of national priorities. These countries may need to use their scarce resources to establish basic economic conditions taken for granted in the developed world. Thus, the provision of technical support for developing countries should be seen as one of the priorities for the CBD and the IPPC to further the implementation of their provisions. A secure cooperation between the CBD and the IPPC on technical support activities in relation to invasive alien species and plant pests would maximize the use of resources provided for this purpose.

Some measures that can be taken by analysing the whole scenario of white flies are:

  1. Taking Farmer’s opinion into account- the ultimate burden lies on the reapers and hence they must be consulted before making any amendments.
  2. Barrier based approached to be encouraged- The use of bird nets, insect nets should be encouraged. They should be provided to every farmers based on the portion of land the farmer owns.
  3. Crop rotation and farming technique education to be promoted- the basic ideas behind these methods must be understood by farmers.
  4. Dissemination of consciousness: People must be educated about the invasive species and their harmful effects. Also, people must not indulge in the illegal or unintentional import of exotic species
  5. Other manageable Methods – Earlier, to get rid of harmful insects like whiteflies, Endosulfan, an organochlorine insecticide and acaricide was used, but during the Stockholm Convention of 2011, a global ban was put on the production of this insecticide due to its toxicity.It has been found that synthetic insecticides are not effective on whiteflies, thus, naturally occurring insect predators, parasitoids and entomopathogenic fungi must be used to control the spread of invasive species
  6. Study/Research/Monitoring must prolong – A lot has been discovered about whiteflies by researchers and continued monitoring of this species may help find better cures and methods to prevent crops from the flies
  7. Enforcement of Stricter Phytosanitary Norms – The state should ensure stricter phytosanitary measures at relevant places to reduce the chances of incoming exotic species
  8. Better reimbursement plans- Government should focus on security of income of farmer, even if the crops are bad, a better development yojna should back them up.
  9. Indirect contributions- reduction of global warming, pollution and other contaminants will indirectly affect the lifecycle of white flies.
  10. Marigold as natural insect repelling flower- production of marigold as a side crop also helps in keeping the white flies away as per the recent studies.11
  11. Special committee for resolution of this problem- A committee such as IRAC India12 must be formed to understand the root level problems of India as crop production here is extensively based on orthodox methods. This committee should exclusively focus on the white flies attack.

International law in regard to environment and bio-diversity has undergone a series of evolutional changes. From Kyoto conventions to Convention on Biodiversity, from conventions for climate-change to Earth summits, every problem has been discussed by various prodigies of the world under a roof. With the changing universe no one problem remains constant and this attack of white flies has been a major hindrance in food production industry. Hence, the human kind must take account the need of the hour or else a food scarcity based on the invasion of insects in on its way.

Author: Prerna Tyagi from Trinity Institute of Professional Studies.

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