‘Locust-19’ set to ravage crops across east Africa

‘Locust-19’ set to ravage crops across east Africa

Second wave of swarms expected just as farmers battle fallout from coronavirus

locust
A motorcyclist rides through a swarm of desert locusts in March in Isiolo county, Kenya © Sven Torfinn/FAO/AP

By David Pilling and Emiko Terazono in London, April 24, 2020

They are calling it “Locust-19”.

(Financial Times) — A second wave of locusts is about to make a devastating appearance in east Africa, two months after swarms — some billions strong and one the size of Moscow — ravaged crops, and just as the coronavirus outbreak has begun to disrupt livelihoods.

“It appears that those who escape Covid-19 will soon face Locust-19,” said Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank and a former Nigerian agriculture minister. “The last thing Africa needs now is a hunger pandemic.”

Locusts have already swept through Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan once this year, in January and February. Now, after those swarms laid eggs, there were likely to be 20 times as many, experts said.

The last time Kenya suffered a locust invasion on anything like this scale was 70 years ago when it was still a British colony, said Keith Cressman, a locust forecasting expert at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Lack of experience and equipment had hampered efforts to eliminate the swarms earlier this year, he said, giving locusts time to lay eggs in the soil and multiply.

Mr Cressman said this generation would do more damage, not only because of the vastly increased numbers, but also because the locusts were starting to fly — and eat — at the start of the planting season. Farmers would postpone planting or the locusts would eat the seedlings, he said, either of which would be devastating.

second wave locust

The invasion risks exacerbating an already precarious food situation in the Horn of Africa. Some 40 per cent of the 160m people in the region are undernourished, according to the FAO.

In spite of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, international experts are in place to support efforts to eradicate the pest with measures including ground and aerial spraying.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has competed for funding, hampered movement and delayed the import of some inputs, including insecticides, said Stephen Njoka, director of the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa.

Mr Njoka said locusts were already eating crops in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and were moving into Uganda and South Sudan. “They are already flying, they are getting mature,” he said. “They are very voracious.”

locust wave
Desert locusts swarm over a tree in northern Kenya in March during the country’s biggest outbreak of the pest in 70 years © Sven Torfinn/FAO/AP

Locusts eat their own body weight in food each day, meaning that a swarm of one square kilometre consumes as much as 35,000 people, experts said. Large swarms can be hundreds of square kilometres in size.

The FAO has managed to raise nearly $120m to tackle the problem, which will augment the efforts of governments in affected countries.

“The first wave arrived when the harvest was actually over,” said Cyril Ferrand, the FAO’s resilience team leader in east Africa. “So there was very marginal damage on cropland.”

However, the start of the rainy season and new planting meant that the second wave was already damaging young seedlings, he said.

“These desert locusts will eat anything green but the young seedlings are the food of choice. And they will eat everything,” he said. “They are moving with the wind and moving north, carrying the swarm to Sudan by June and July and then moving to the Sahel region.”

desert locust

Sara Menker, chief executive of Gro Intelligence, a commodities analytics firm, said there was still time to head off the worst damage. “A huge part of Africa goes into planting from May. There is a critical four to six-week window to start treatments,” she said.

Ms Menker said the second wave could spread to Pakistan and India and from there to China. “If the swarms arrive in India and China there could be another layer of damage,” she said.

Using the Gro estimates for cropland damaged in Ethiopia, where just under 19m hectares was affected earlier this year, the country could incur losses of $5bn in staple cereal crops, assuming 50 per cent yield loss, if the same area is attacked again.

If the second wave of locusts is not eradicated, the danger is that the swarms will lay eggs again and a third wave — bigger still — could emerge at harvest time in June and July.

“That means another 20-fold increase,” said Mr Cressman. “It’s exponential, 20 times 20. So the total is a 400-increase since the beginning.”