By Annette Onyango
According to the United Nations, the Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) invasion has become, in the horn of Africa, extremely alarming, with farmers across East Africa facing food shortages as the locusts consume both crops in the fields and in storage. The countries most affected include Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, with Kenya experiencing the worst outbreak in 70 years.
This paper seeks to give an understanding of the potential impact the locust infestation if the situation continues to persist in the horn of Africa. The paper gives a background on what desert locusts are what they eat and how much they eat. The background information also gives the impact the novel virus Covid-19 has on eradicating the locusts. The paper also gives the impact the locusts have on food security, the economy and other unintended outcomes such as the effect of the pesticides on human health
The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is one of the most dangerous of the migratory pest species in the world. It threatens peoples livelihoods, food security, the environment and economic development. The locusts can migrate over long distances and devastate crops on the way. They have the ability to change behavior and appearances under particular environmental conditions. Adult locusts can consume their own weight of food per day, and a swam of more than 40 million locusts can consume the same amount of food as 35,000 people can in one day. During recession periods the locusts can be found in the deserts of North Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia.
Weather changes in East Africa have created conditions that favor the rapid reproduction of the locusts, the locusts estimated to move 150 kilometers per day is expected to devastate rural livelihoods in their drive to eat and move. The current situation in East Africa remains alarming as more swarms form and mature in northern and central Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia. This presents a threat to food security and livelihoods as it coincides with the beginning of long rains and the planting season. The region is already facing high levels of food insecurity with almost 25 million people affected.
In the early months of the year, a novel coronavirus known as Covid-19 affected the whole world and did not spare East Africa. The restrictions on the movement of personnel and equipment imposed by Covid-19 has had an impact on the supply of motorized sprayers and pesticides with priority being to prevent a breakdown in pesticide stocks in each country. Because of this, organizations have trained citizens of the affected countries to conduct ground locust control operations. The management and impact of the desert locusts in the region have created unprecedented outcomes with some being unintended.
The locust outbreak in East Africa calls for an international response as the insects devour millions of hectares of vegetation in their cross-border migration, increasing the already fragile food security in the region. The outbreak has worsened the food security situation with 239 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and over 20 million have already been in food crisis. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) estimates that people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan, who are already facing severe food insecurity are located in the areas currently affected by the desert locust infestation. Two consecutive failed rainy seasons, drought, torrential rains, flooding, ongoing conflict, and economic shocks have left millions of people ‘food insecure.’ The situation may become worse by the breeding of new locusts in the region. Experts continue to warn that by June 2020 the swarms would swell and place further 3.24 million people in South Sudan and Uganda at further risk.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 138 million dollars is required to support governments in the affected areas to control the pests, especially in the coming months. Currently, mature swarms are laying eggs and many which are already hatching. By the time they reach their juvenile stage, crops will begin to sprout; thus, the time to take action is now to save East Africa from further food insecurity.
The impact on the economy
Agriculture is a critical sector in Kenya and accounts for 26% of the GDP. As the worlds largest exporter of black tea and second-largest exporter of fruit and vegetables is facing a threat in depreciation of the shilling which may complicate the repayment of government debt. Kenya has gone through significant drought followed by floods which have further weakened its resilience. Economic growth has fallen from 6.4% in 2018 to 5.1 in 2019 with the recent locust invasion causing a further threat to agricultural production.
Significant economic damage occurs during autumn when adult swarms damage emerging cereal and horticultural crops. Slightly later in the season, the adults will eat through the plant stems that are just beginning to dry off, resulting in the complete loss of the grain. In the case of improved pastures, locusts will consume plant matter that would have been used by grazing animals. Other economic results occur during harvesting when adult locusts are present; the locusts can be picked up by harvesting equipment resulting in grain contaminated with insect parts at levels exceeding the maximum set limits for human consumption. The grain must then be passed through expensive cleaning equipment or downgraded to the feed-grain status that is then sold at a lower price.
As the East African countries scramble to control the locusts, concerns are being raised about the impact of the widespread use of insecticides to control them. Efforts typically made to eliminate or eradicate diseases, pests or viruses can inadvertently cause significant problems, the near-term risk is that in the effort to control or deal with one issue can detract from a health systems ability to deal with other causes of social harm such as COVID-19 and the impact of pesticides on one’s health. To control the desert locusts, governments are using large scale spray operations using backpack sprayers and helicopters. The chemicals being sprayed are organophosphate pesticides, including neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos.
Health advocates are raising concerns about how the spray campaigns are being carried out. Lack of adequate training, use of protective equipment for the applicators, and lack of adequate information to the farmers on the impact on how the chemicals impact their health, livestock, and food crops. According to the Ugandan Secretary-General, the aggressive spraying of the locusts will have both short and long term effects. The focus usually is on the short term effects while the human ecological costs are never factored. Other concerns raised include the consumption of sprayed locusts immediately after spraying and the impact on health.
Pesticides used in the management of the desert locusts are numerous; fenitrothion, chlorpyrifos, among others. Environmental experts are now advocating for the use of microencapsulated pesticides to limit the spread of toxic products. According to the experts, the pesticides being sprayed not only affect locusts, but they also kill ‘useful’ insects such as bees and beetles, without the bees, there is no pollination thus no fruit. The extensive use of insecticides also causes an imbalance in the ecosystem by killing beneficial insects that feed on harmful insects which means that spraying will continue to prevent them.
In relation to aquatic systems, most of the pesticides used are highly toxic to certain species of the aquatic system. The chemical adheres to the suspended solids and sediments. The organic pollutants can get trapped on the surface form on the water.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, this is the worst outbreak in decades, especially in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. In Kenya, the locusts have already damaged 470,000 acres of crops and destroyed 741,000 acres of vegetation.
To eradicate the locusts, a region-wide approach is required that will bring all the countries affected together. The approach will help curb the locusts at the egg stage and also to come up with a lasting solution to the problem. When the infestation is coupled up with a disease outbreak such as COVID -19, the situation becomes direr. Many of the governments are more focused on eradicating the disease at the expense of the locust infestation. This may affect the overall outcomes, especially in areas such as nutrition since if people are not well nourished, they are more predisposed to the virus. Other outcomes will be on the purchasing power of the affected families as the crops that would have been a source of income are not available. Governments and the international community need to step in before famine and food security become widespread.
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