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How to effectively tackle locust invasion

Friday January 24 2020


Locusts invade Kanukurmeri village in Turkana County on January 20, 2020. Nine other counties have been affected. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Kenya’s food production and grazing land is under threat from a huge desert locust invasion. The government has yet to quantify losses, but past attacks have caused harvest losses of up to 70 per cent.

Desert locusts are considered the most dangerous of all migratory pests because they can eventually develop wings and form a cohesive swarm, which can cross continents and seas. They have the ability to devour crops from entire farm fields in a single morning. Studies show that large swarms form because of factors including changes to the environment, population structure and behaviour.

These desert locusts migrated from Yemen — a traditional breeding area — through Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia. The region has had more rainfall than usual, which could have led to this situation. After periods of drought, when vegetation flushes occur in major desert locust breeding areas, rapid population build-ups and competition for food can lead to a swarm developing.

To fight these voracious pests, the government of Kenya is using chemical pesticides, often the usual immediate response of African governments to these outbreaks. This was the approach used to curb the spread of the invasive fall armyworm in Kenya, Malawi and Ghana, for instance. But they don’t work in the long run.

Pesticides are chemicals used to kill pests — from animal pests to weeds. Their use is growing in many countries in general, including Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria. In 2017, Nigeria spent over $400 million (Sh40 billion) on these chemicals.

While there are benefits of using pesticides — including directly reducing the incidence of the invading pests — the benefits are short-term: insects can quickly become resistant to them.


Pesticides are also bad for the environment and the health of consumers and farmers. Many European countries have banned some of them for those reasons. In 2017, a United Nations report showed that about 200,000 people, mostly from developing countries, die every year from pesticide poisoning.

Countries must therefore promote alternatives or look more carefully at how to prevent insect invasions in the first place. There are alternatives to pesticides, including integrated pest management. This is an approach that doesn’t rule out the use of pesticides, but uses them as little as possible.

Integrated pest management also promotes the use of safer alternatives like biocontrol, which uses natural enemies to control pests, biopesticides and cultural control practices, which modify the growing environment to reduce unwanted pests.

Biopesticides have been used to manage the invasive fall armyworm and control locusts, but they’re not popular, because they take time to kill the pests.

Countries also need to be proactive in dealing with potential invasions — reactive measures aren’t enough. With warming temperatures in many parts of the continent, some insects will grow and mature faster, meaning more pest invasions. Sub-Saharan African countries will be greatly affected. Recent examples include the fall armyworm invasions that caused billions of dollars in losses on the continent while contributing to food insecurity for millions of farmers.

Governments must work to prevent insect invasions from happening in the first place.

It’s possible for African countries to anticipate and prepare for invasions. They can tap into existing support tools to identify potential invasive pests. The Horizon Scanning Tool, for example, helps countries to generate a list of insect species that might invade from neighbouring countries. Because countries know about potential invaders ahead of time, they can prepare action plans for when invasions happen.

African countries must also strengthen their own pest surveillance. Most African countries don’t have good systems — such as border screening — in place to control the introduction of plants and plant products, which could have pests or diseases. Many governments also don’t carry out routine pest surveillance.

Ms Ngumbi is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. ©The Conversation