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Climate Change, Potential Famine, and COVID-19: African agriculture threatened by locust infestation

Updated: May 23

Weeks before the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, many African countries were facing another national emergency - extremely large locust outbreaks. In fact, this locust infestation is the largest recorded for many counties in the last 70 years (1).

Desert locusts are a kind of grasshopper and usually live antisocial lives. However, certain environmental conditions can lead these locusts to transform into Jekyll and Hyde locusts, which become quite social and begin to reproduce rapidly. As they continue to reproduce, they can create massive swarms of up to 10 billion locusts that traverse over 200 kilometres daily. One swarm alone can ravish crop fields, destroying agriculture that can supply over 2500 people with a year’s supply of food (2).

The cause of this year's infestation is thought to have been fueled by the climate crisis. In 2018 and 2019, the countries between India and West Africa experienced cyclones and heavy rain. The environmental state created by these extreme weather conditions may have allowed locust populations to grow without being noticed. In early 2019, swarms began to ravish agriculture in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea, and Djibouti (2). See the image below to follow the movement of the locusts.


Figure: Movement of locust swarms across the Middle East and Eastern Africa. These locust swarms are thought to be fueled by extreme weather conditions due to climate change. (source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-84994842-8967-4dfd-9490-10f805de9f68)

Currently, Eastern African countries including Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya are suffering greatly because of these swarms. It is predicted that the swarms are consuming just under 2 million tonnes of agriculture per day, and some swarms are thought to cover an area comparable to almost half a million football fields (2). With these locusts continuing to grow, millions, especially those living in rural farming communities are threatened. In fact, the UN has declared the infestations an ‘unprecedented threat’ to many individuals living in the affected countries and announced they will require 153 million dollars to address the issue now. At this time, the Food and Agriculture Organization has collected 11 million dollars for these purposes (1).


The simultaneous COVID-19 pandemic is making the response to these locusts more difficult. The most effective and now necessary method of combating the infestation involves the release of pesticides from helicopters flying over farming lands (1). However, due to the pandemic countries like Uganda are having difficulty importing the needed dowsing materials from other countries due to the restrictions and delayed shipments caused by virus precautions. Even efforts by locals to gather outside their farming lands and either spray pesticides or create loud noises to ward off the insects has been greatly impaired to due social distancing practices (1).

Events like these highlight the extremely deleterious and far-reaching effects climate change can have on countries around the world. Similar, though not as severe, events have already begun to occur in Canada. With the average temperature of Alberta rising due to climate change, in conjunction with shorter winters, mountain pine beetles have started to infest the province wiping out many pine tree populations. One of our earlier articles describes how these invasive species have had an even larger effect on the environment as it has led to a decrease in usable carbon stores and increased burning to eliminate the infected trees (3). This shows how in Africa, Canada, and around the world, climate change brings about countless devastating side effects that add to the global burden of a warming planet.


References


1) Muhamuza R. New, larger wave of locusts threatens millions in Africa. CTV News, 2020. Available from https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/new-larger-wave-of-locusts-threatens-millions-in-africa-1.4891364

2) Visual Journalism Team. How a single locust becomes a plague. BBC News, 2020. Available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-84994842-8967-4dfd-9490-10f805de9f68

3) Giacomodonato H. Cold Snap Kills Mountain Pine Beetle: Canadian Forests’ Littlest Big Threat. Shake Up The Establishment, 2020. Available from https://www.shakeuptheestab.org/post/pine-beetle

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