11 Mar, 2020

Locusts are the next threat to food security

by Alessandro Balduzzi

2020 has not begun only under the banner of coronavirus spreading all over the world. For some months, the Horn of Africa has been facing the worst desert locust crisis in over 25 years. The primarily concerned countries are Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, Tanzania, Uganda, and South Sudan.

More than 20,2 million people are already suffering from food insecurity in the aforementioned area and swarms of locusts are adding a threat to a precarious situation and could increase the number of people at risk. The gravity of the danger is well represented by the state of emergency declared by the Somali government.

In order to understand to what extent locusts can undermine agriculture in a region where a broad share of the population still gain their living from farming, it is useful to provide the reader with fairly disturbing data. A swarm of locusts can contain 40 to 80 million adult individuals which can consume in just one day crops feeding up to 35 thousand people. Such a destructive effect is even more calamitous in contexts where droughts, high food prices and conflict are far from being rare phenomena.

Locusts are among the oldest migratory species in the world. They are able to gregarize and form huge swarms (recently, a single swarm 60 kilometres long and 240 kilometres wide was detected in Kenya) than can fly over large distances. The most devastating locust species is the Schistocerca gregaria, also known as Desert Locust. Other three species - the Italian, Moroccan, and Asian Migratory locust are less damaging but affect anyway food security and livelihood in Caucasus, Central Asia, northern Afghanistan and southern Russian Federation.

Schistocerca gregaria usually live in the desert areas between West Africa and India. In fact, the swarms afflicting the Horn of Africa and progressively invading other parts of the Middle East and Asia originated from the desert of Oman. There, favourable climate conditions - such as high rain levels, cyclones and favourable winds - enable the locusts to multiply rapidly and migrate as fast. If environmental conditions are good, locust can actually reproduce at an accelerated pace (some 20-fold in three months) and fly up to 150 kilometres per day. Locusts are voracious as well and can eat their own weight every day, i.e. about two grams of fresh vegetation. 

At least two factors can explain the unprecedented spread of locusts in the region. First, climate change. Global warming has extended these insects’ breeding period and led to a shocking rate of reproduction. Moreover, ideal breeding conditions were made possible by the unseasonable rainfall East African deserts received in recent years.

Second, conflicts and failed states prevented public authorities from conducting the necessary prevention and pest control campaign. In this context, empty coffers have not been of any help. This is why FAO has launched an appeal for 138 million US dollars to support the urgent implementation of rapid control measures and surveillance operations whose main purpose is to prevent a further deterioration in the food security situation and to safeguard livelihoods.

FAO’s action is structured around three main pillars. Curbing the spread of desert can be reached through continuous ground and aerial control. Safeguarding livelihoods and promotion of recovery are possible through cash interventions, supplementary livestock feed and farming packages. Coordination and preparedness must be implemented through the deployment of rapid surge support, collaboration with regional partnerships, regional advocacy and national capacity building.

Now the situation keeps being alarming in the Horn of Africa, specifically in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. There, widespread breeding is in progress according to FAO and new swarms are starting to form whilst the cropping season is approaching. Kenya is the hardest-hit country, where up to 200 billion locusts are destroying pasture and farmland in 2,400 square kilometre area. The plague could potentially wipe out enough food to feed 84 million people.

Still, other areas are also increasingly concerned. In Pakistan, the insects are destroying tomato, wheat and cotton crops whilst food prices are skyrocketing. India has been affected for months: locusts destroyed mainly cumin seed fields (about 10,700 hectares) in the western state of Gujarat.

Even China has become more and more worried. Though the risk is allegedly low at the moment, Chinese authorities recognized that a lack of monitoring techniques and little knowledge of migration patterns will be a major obstacle to an efficient response. The alarm is especially high in the Chinese regions bordering China and Pakistan such as Xinjiang. There, increased inspections are carried out at customs checkpoints in search of locusts and their eggs.

The survival of tens of millions of people has already been threatened by the destruction of their crops. If the international community does not intervene promptly to provide long-term support, the number of affected people in vulnerable countries is bound to increase further.