13 April 2021

Pesticides Needed to Fight Worst Pests Like Desert Locusts in Africa

Evelyn Lusenaka

Regional Director
East and South Africa
CropLife Africa Middle East
Nairobi, Kenya

By Evelyn Lusenaka

Pesticides always help farmers combat insects, weeds and diseases in crops, but they really prove their mettle when fighting the worst pests. Case in point, desert locusts in Africa.

These voracious pests are a rare but long-time problem. Last year, the Horn of Africa had the worst desert locust infestation in 70 years. This exponentially compounded food insecurity in the region, greatly threatening public health and farmer livelihoods. In fact, the outbreak worsened malnutrition and hunger among 239 million Sub-Saharan Africans, especially children, in resource-poor countries plagued with hardship. More than 20 million people were already in a food crisis following two consecutive seasons of drought, torrential rains, flooding, civil conflict and economic instability. Locusts made their situation a whole lot worse.

The pests first arrived in eastern Africa in the fall of 2019, resulting in catastrophic damage by the following summer. Conditions favorable to their rapid reproduction coincided with the beginning of the planting season and long rains. Locusts Thankfully, pesticides and biopesticides were able to combat the locusts, saving millions of hectares of crops and pasturelands and ultimately, lives.

These products are being called into action again as the locusts are back this year, rethreatening the Horn of Africa. Early management will be critical to prevent loss of crops and livestock.

Wanted: Desert Locust

In the book of bad bugs, desert locusts are among the most dangerous. They eat all green leaves on crops, trees and plants. Adult locusts can consume their body weight of food daily. A swarm of more than 40 million can consume the same amount of food as 35,000 people in one day! Desert locusts can also migrate about 150 kilometers daily, eating everything in their path, and can change behavior and appearance under specific environmental conditions.

The worst of last year’s locust infestation was in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, where 80 to 100 percent of crops and pastureland in some to all areas were lost due to late control. For example, Somalia lost 100 percent of its staple sorghum and maize crops. Starvation increased throughout the region, especially in Ethiopia, making food aid essential. Livestock also died with nothing to eat. Djibouti, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania were also affected.

Cyclone Pawan, which hit Somalia in early December 2019, was largely to blame. It caused massive flooding in the region and ideal breeding conditions for hoppers (baby locusts), including prolonged and exceptionally wet weather, which encouraged them and their food sources to grow. Strong winds facilitated their migration.

In November 2020, nearly a year after Pawan, Cyclone Gati hit Somalia, which was the strongest storm in the country’s recorded history. In two days, it caused about two years-worth of rain. This led to another generation of locusts in Somalia as well as neighboring Ethiopia.

Needed: Pesticides

Pesticides are the main intervention that can control swarms of desert locusts. These bad bugs are largely controlled with targeted, aerial spraying of pesticides. Without chemical intervention, 2020 locust infestations would have been far worse – at least doubling the number of food-insecure Africans. There would have been 100 percent loss of crops and pasturelands in all areas of affected countries, resulting in even more starvation.

Unfortunately, restrictions on the movement of personnel and equipment imposed by COVID-19 impacted the supply of aerial sprayers and pesticides last year. This prompted an international response from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, whose mandate is to ensure food security, which made pesticide spraying an essential service. The Desert Locust Control Organization of Eastern Africa took the lead regionally and national governments – cash-strapped from floods and COVID-19 – turned to the FAO, NGOs and the pesticide industry for products, equipment, aircraft and training. This support enabled control of 1 million hectares of infested farmland and protected the livelihoods of 110,000 households.

Given climate change, Africa is subject to a recurrence of desert locust swarms, which are normally rare. In fact, a third generation already threatens the region with a February outbreak. This will require effective procurement, delivery, internal transport, storage and disposal of appropriate, registered pesticides. The ideal time to spray is soon after they hatch on the ground, not when they are mature and flying (moving targets).

Procuring and managing pesticides and their application are the most difficult and expensive factors in controlling locusts. In fact, according to the FAO, these activities account for half of the total cost of intervention. That’s because global stocks of products and control equipment are limited.

The crop protection industry, agribusiness stakeholders and governments must partner to help farmers quickly and effectively manage locust infestations. The industry has expertise on how to address emergency pest situations. Involving it in locust control efforts will help ensure that authentic, legally registered pesticides are bought in appropriate quantities and supplied in a timely manner. Governments should work with the industry to avoid over-purchasing pesticides. In addition, CropLife International has trained Spray Service Providers in the responsible use of pesticides who can be utilized for land-based locust control.

Pesticides are essential in tropical African countries as pest invasions beyond locusts are common. This requires different products and approaches to control them than other geographies in order to protect farmers’ livelihoods and public health. Like the FAO, the job of the pesticide industry is to provide sustainable solutions to food security. Working together, they can fight the worst pests.

Evelyn Lusenaka is regional director of East and Southern Africa at CropLife Africa and Middle East in Nairobi, Kenya.

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