Locust Swarms Cause Problems for Food Security and Export in East Africa

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Published Feb 18, 2020
A locust invasion in East Africa will affect food supplies severely. Farmlands in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and other countries in the Horn of Africa have been severely damaged. Corn, beans, bananas, sweet potatoes, and ginger amongst the products most affected.

An ongoing locust invasion in East Africa is set to seriously affect food supply in the region. With hundreds of billions of locusts already flying around, food security is in serious danger as the planting season for some of the major crops in the region - e.g. maize, sorghum, beans - is starting soon.

The cause of the swarm is believed to be heavy rains in the short rain season as well as the cyclones that hit the coast of Somalia at the beginning of December 2019. These cyclones flung large amounts of rain to Oman, creating ideal breeding grounds for the locusts. The pests have been coming in swarms to East Africa, hitting Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and other neighboring countries.

Swarms Containing 40-80 Million Locusts

Locust swarms can become extremely big and devour everything in their path. An average swarm contains around 40-80 million locusts, but swarms can become as big as 150 million locusts per square kilometer of farmland. Already in Kenya, a swarm as big as 60km long by 40km wide was measured. Recent estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that the locust population in East Africa might grow 500 times larger by June. Locusts are currently breeding in the horn of Africa and heavy rains in spring followed by warmer, drier weather will lead to explosive growth in the locust population.

An average swarm of locusts of one square kilometer can eat the same amount of food in one day as 35K people. The swarms can most effectively be eradicated by aerial spraying, but many countries have trouble mobilizing resources and investments from abroad are necessary. So far, the swarms have destroyed more than 70K hectares of farmland in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, and the planting season has not even started yet.

Corn, Beans, Sweet Potatoes Among Affected Products

So far, the locusts have not done great right damage to the 2019 harvest, as they reached East Africa right after the December harvests were finished, causing minimal damage to the harvested crops. Nevertheless, a lot of farmland has been destroyed by the locusts already. More worrisome, the planting season for a lot of major commodities - both in terms of food security as well as exports - will commence in March and April. Many farmers fear that this year’s harvest will be decimated.

Major grains, such as rice, corn, and sorghum, as well as fruits and vegetables, are planted during the spring. Currently, the swarms have landed on pastoral lands all over East Africa. Areas affected include the lands of small-scale farmers who practice subsistence farming of maize, beans, and cowpeas in Northern Kenya, and lands producing bananas, sweet potatoes, and ginger in the northern part of Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

FAO is worried about potential food insecurity in East Africa, especially because many countries in this region already face food scarcity. South Sudan and Somalia are especially susceptible to food insecurity. The products affected are also exported to the global market. Export volume is expected to decrease significantly, and might even halt if the pests spread further, and prices are expected to increase. Unless the pests are eradicated before or during the early stages of the planting season, East Africa, as well as the markets it exports to, will face serious economic consequences.

What Should Be Done?

The UN has called for urgent action to tackle this crisis before it harms people’s lives and livelihoods. It is seeking USD 76 million in immediate aid from state donors to help fund aerial spraying and other eradication methods. So far only USD 20 million has been made available. However, the usage of pesticides also worries farmers and environmentalists, as that might do significant damage to the biodiversity and insect communities in East Africa. Nevertheless, if left unchecked, the region might need additional funds as well as food because of the anticipated crop losses.


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