AgricultureThe New Age Plague.

Selina LiyengwaFebruary 4, 20237618 min
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On the mention of locusts, the first thing that comes to mind is Pharaoh, Moses, the Israelites and the ten plagues. In this day and age locusts still plague certain areas of the globe where they cause mass destruction. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN terms the situation in the Horn of Africa to be extremely alarming and estimates that a swarm covering one square kilometre can eat as much food in a day as 35,000 humans.

Locusts are a special type of grasshoppers that tend to cohabitate and migrate together. The species are known to be rapid reproducers and can cover extensive distances according to National Geographic. According to Etienne Peterschmitt, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization official, rains and winds are two of the most favourable conditions for desert locusts to multiply rapidly and spread. Locust numbers increase 20 times in 3 months with every new generation.

Locusts often feed on crops hence pose a great threat to the agricultural sector. In 2019, after a period of unusual weather patterns in Kenya magnified by climate change, a locust infestation occurred. The ancient species originated from Yemen, moved to Somalia and then spread out across East Africa. In 2020, Kenya faced its worst locust invasion in 70 years that threatened the food security of millions of people in the nation. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) referred to the infestation in East Africa as a “scourge of biblical proportions” and the worst the region has faced in decades. Kenya had not suffered a major locust invasion in 70 years hence the country was unprepared for what was perceived as a remote threat.

The conflict in Yemen, Somalia and Northern Ethiopia made it difficult for FAO to mitigate and control the breeding and spread of the pest from the source. Yemen is considered to be the largest breeding ground of the desert locust. Moreover, as a result of the war in Yemen, the country no longer had the means to spray pesticides that kill the insects. Regular farmers also found it too dangerous to spray the pesticides themselves. When the southerly winds came about, the locusts then crossed over the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa where they spread to the rest of East Africa given favourable breeding grounds.

Governments, in an effort to combat the infestation, resorted to spraying insecticides over parcels of land. However, this brought about health and environmental concerns. Although the World Health Organization does not categorise any of the 6 pesticides used in East Africa as highly hazardous, some of their components namely: chlorpyrifos, fenitrothion and malathion, are considered moderately hazardous and slightly hazardous respectively. According to a report done by EcoTrac, the 3 compounds are highly toxic to fish and mammals. According to National Geographic, what makes widespread spraying of chemical pesticides especially worrisome to farmers, herders, scientists, and conservationists in Kenya is that so little is known about what, if any, harm the pesticides have done. Moreover, the FAO’s 2003 guidelines on safety and environmental precautions acknowledge that aerial spraying may have less impact on human health than ground spraying, but often creates more environmental concerns because it risks contaminating ecologically sensitive areas. Aerial spraying increases the potential for “uncontrolled drift” because the chemicals are blown off course by the wind and end up missing their intended target and cause unintended pollution instead.

The following statement made by Cyril Ferrand, the FAO East Africa Resilience Team Leader, outlines the new methods to gain control of the problem: “We have a lot of swarms, the swarms are much smaller and then the capacity to respond is much higher. So a year ago in February 2020, we had two aircraft in Kenya able to spray a very minimal quantity of pesticide. Now in Kenya, we have 10 aircraft operating, so the time lap between the moment we can spot desert locusts and the moment we can treat is much faster, which means that the damage also is very reduced on vegetation and biomass.”

In 2020, the locust infestation affected the food supply and livelihoods of 2.5 million people in Kenya. However, efforts made by the UN and the Kenyan government to deal with the infestation have proven fruitful. In April 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Kenya stated that only Samburu county is being afflicted by desert locusts. However, there is still the threat of an infestation with the onset of the rainy season, there is a possibility that the remaining immature swarms will find suitable breeding grounds and bring forth another swarm of locusts causing a re-infestation.

Selina Liyengwa

Content writer at Cue Africa. Email: LinkedIn: Selina Liyengwa.

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