It's Armageddon: why locusts are exacerbating global food insecurity
Of the world's most dangerous migratory pests, locusts probably top the list. Locust infestations are at their worst levels in nearly a quarter of a century, an environmental blight that threatens the food supplies and livelihoods of millions. Hundreds of billions of locusts are currently swarming through parts of East Africa and South Asia, highlighting the food and water vulnerabilities of both regions.
The dangers, however, are not limited to crops; in January last year, locust swarms were dense enough to force an Ethiopian Airlines plane off its course. A joint statement by the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) noted that the scourge has been of “biblical proportions”, with its scale "unprecedented in modern times”. In regions rife with poverty, what can be done to combat this menacing infestation?
What is a locust?
A locust plague is a devastating natural disaster. These infestations have been feared throughout history and still wreak havoc today. Locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) are related to grasshoppers, and the two insects look very similar. Ordinarily, locusts are harmless, solitary insects; however, when many gather together, their behavioural instincts can change. This is known as the gregarious behavioural phase; locusts begin to breed and ravenously consume vegetation, especially stable cereal crops, legumes and pastures.
For instance, an average swarm can contain up to 40 million insects, travel up to 150 km in a single day, and devour food which would normally feed millions within a very short period of time. Indeed, the destructive insect can eat its own weight in food. Among several species of locusts found around the globe, the Desert Locust is considered the most dangerous as it can migrate over vast distances and rapidly breed. This species of locust is usually restricted to the semi-arid and arid deserts of Africa, the Near East and South-West Asia, areas that receive a small amount (less than 200mm) of rain annually.
State of Emergency
Currently, the area potentially affected by locusts consists of 16 million square kilometres stretching over 30 states. Therefore, the problem is not only confined to the Horn of Africa, with locust swarms also affecting parts of the Middle East and South Asia. The devastation left by these creatures on vulnerable communities can be severe. For example, the World Bank predicted that East Africa and Yemen stood to lose $8.5 billion in 2020 as a result of locust infestations. Additionally, locust swarms have forced states like Somalia to declare a national emergency.
With such large landmasses being adversely impacted by these pests, the devastation brought on by locusts is only likely to worsen due to re-infestation. The UN has issued a warning that “new locust swarms are already forming and threatening to re-invade northern Kenya and breeding is also underway on both sides of the Red Sea, posing a new threat to Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen.” The impact of this infestation in Kenya has increased food insecurity, where many herders have been unable to feed their livestock. Accordingly, they have had to move from one place to another in search of pasture, risking communal conflict over farming territory.
Governments across East Africa have tried various strategies to control these insects. These include mobilising military units and utilising young people as locust cadets to spray pesticides over affected lands. Although there is no reliable way to track the movement of locusts, aerial spraying is widely considered the most effective method of control.
Furthermore, the best tactic is to spray locusts before the swarming process begins. The UN has requested that the international community support affected states by providing nearly $76 million to finance aerial spraying of pesticides in regions like East Africa. Another method is to improve early warning systems to better understand weather changes that provide ideal locust breeding conditions. This preemptive effort could ensure that states and regional authorities work together to prevent the locust spread and minimise their impact on vulnerable people. Doing so may prevent swarms of locusts from decimating crops and exacerbating disease and hunger by creating greater regional food insecurity. Regrettably, if nothing is done, the WFP has warned that East African states will be forced to spend around 15 times more money to feed their populations.
As the WFP celebrates its recent Nobel Peace Prize for fighting hunger and fostering peace in conflict-affected areas, the calls for collective action to combat locust swarms appear all the more pertinent. Indeed, there are no simple answers when it comes to protecting humans from the destruction of locusts. Trying to control and eliminate populations of flying locusts is expensive and generally ineffective.
Nevertheless, the international community must not give up. Migratory pests require transnational solutions. Unless urgent global action is taken, food insecurity will continue to endanger vulnerable communities in Africa and around the world. Accordingly, the solution requires greater research, financial, material and human resource sharing, as well as international investment in successful strategies such as aerial spraying. These coordinated efforts may help curb the spread of locusts and thereby bolster global food security for the world’s most vulnerable people.
Faseeha Hashmi holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, and has an interest in human security and international diplomacy