Ecologically Based Rodent Management for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in Africa (EcoRodMan)

Rats and mice are arguably one of the most neglected pest problems the world over. Rodents attack and damage crops grown in the field, as well as damaging stored crops in homes, warehouses and factories. Hence, their damage and contamination of food is problematic across the value chain. We can add to this the problems rodents cause in our cities, where rodents feeding on our refuse go on to damage sewage and drainage systems, undermine foundations, damage electrical wires and gas supplies and generally terrorise the citizens. The economic and social costs of such damage occasionally make the news when hospital equipment fails or buildings burn down due to damaged wires, but such damage is rarely systematically quantified. Zoonotic diseases such as Lassa fever and bubonic plague are endemic problems in rural Africa, which sometimes lead to human-to-human disease outbreaks. More often than not, rodent-borne diseases are not recognised or diagnosed and poorly treated, with many thousands of poor rural people dying from rodent-borne diseases across Africa each year.  With rodents transmitting more than 60 diseases to people and domestic animals, damaging food production systems, and exacerbating sanitation problems, few would argue society’s rat problems have been solved. Despite this, research on rodent pest management is entirely absent in many African countries. 

Research on rodent pests is typically carried out by isolated researchers, and few institutions have sustainable teams of experts working on rodents. This low capacity for innovation has led to a situation whereby low investment in rodent research results in limited awareness and documentation of the scale of rodent pest problems, making the matter easy to ignore. Recent research funded by the European Development Fund suggests this situation can be changed in Africa, and we believe the objectives and priorities of the call are highly relevant to the rodent pest management research field. This is because rodent pests are currently unsustainably and indiscriminately controlled using highly toxic poisons, but where there is great potential to develop agro-ecologically sustainable solutions that could lead to real positive changes in human well-being through enhanced food, nutrition and financial security, reduced environmental contamination and increased sustainable agricultural practices. In particular, indiscriminate large scale use of rat poisons is known to drive biodiversity loss which can down regulate ecosystem functions like predation (e.g. avian, mammalian and reptilian predators) and ecosystem resilience (e.g. increased invasion potential due to reduced biodiversity). Such changes in ecosystem function and diversity can trigger ecosystem cascading effects that could in extreme cases lead to outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.  Furthermore, the action would strongly enhance inter-regional scientific research collaboration and cooperation by bringing together rodent researchers from across the continent. The proposed action combines the strengths of institutions across six countries from the South, Central and East of Africa to help build sustainable teams of rodent experts. This inter-regional research network will increase the quality of science produced through cross-training and the sharing of best practices that address the multiplicity of problems caused by rodents for African families. Because of the multiple impacts of rodents across agriculture and health, building Africa’s research capacities to tackle rodent pest problems by developing innovative and sustainable solutions could be one of the most important interventions of the 21st century across the continent to reduce poverty and improve people’s livelihoods.

            Reducing rodent pest numbers can have a much larger impact on reducing poverty than any other single pest problem. In agriculture, rodents are both a pre-harvest and post-harvest pest problem, causing major impacts on food security, nutrition, food safety and human health. In the post-harvest sector, small holder farmer grain stores are subject to high levels of urine and faecal contamination that can lead to many bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases transmitted to people. Rodents also selectively eat the germ of stored grain, which reduces its nutritive content. On top of contamination and nutritional damage, post-harvest loss due to rodents for many African farmers is typically 5-20%, whilst crop losses in the field are documented to be much higher (20-40% and frequently >50%).  Despite being a well-recognised problem throughout the world, there has been relatively little research on rodent pest management since the advent of anticoagulant rodenticides in the 1950’s. The poor application and adaptation of rodent control measures to particular situations often results in treatment failures, leading to apathy and widespread acceptance of rodent pests in the environment. Many rural farmers suffer from low awareness, ingrained defeatism when trying to control rodents and acquiesce to rodent damage. In a global context, rodent pests are a clear poverty indicator; those households most exposed and proximal to rodents are usually the poorest of the poor who lack rodent management tools and knowledge.  Expected results of the action are to deliver sustainable agricultural practices and new technology and understanding that can limit the multiple impacts of rodent pests on people’s lives. Both high-tech research solutions and the optimisation of indigenous practices can help deliver more ecologically sound rodent management that enhances food and nutrition security whilst protecting the environment and increasing agricultural intensification. The action’s results will help reduce the use of poisons that are dangerous to humans, other animals and the environment as well as develop new technology that will be more cost-beneficial, promoting One Health principles.

African Union