The largest locust swarms in East Africa in decades pose a significant threat to food security and business operations across East Africa, the Middle East, and in parts of South Asia. On Feb. 9, UN officials warned the locust swarms could cause a catastrophe in the affected regions if left unchecked. The swarms have already damaged crops in parts of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, and have destroyed over 190,000 hectares of crops in Kenya alone. The crop destruction is almost certain to threaten food security in affected locations and contribute to economic instability, particularly in East Africa, where agriculture is the region’s largest industry. The agriculture sector employs nearly two-thirds of the regions’ citizens and is responsible for over 30 percent of GDP across all of East Africa. The swarms are attacking economically vital crops, with Uganda’s agricultural ministry reporting that the country could lose USD 218 million, or 8 percent, of its export revenue.
Weather conditions have facilitated the current swarm sizes and are highly likely to perpetuate their growth in the coming months. While locusts are an annual concern in the regions, this year’s locust outbreak is much larger than usual, as unusually high cyclone activity in the Indian Ocean created ideal growing conditions for locusts. The beginning of the rainy season is also likely to aid the rapid reproduction of additional locust swarms.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warn that the number of locusts could grow 500 times larger by June if sufficient control measures are not enacted. If the locust control operations continue to be unsuccessful in curbing the spread of locusts, they could develop into a plague, which would take two to three years to bring under control.
The threat is almost certain to worsen due to a lack of resources and infrastructure to fight the locusts. Favorable weather conditions allowed the locusts to travel outside their typical territory, into countries that lack the resources to effectively combat the outbreak at its present size. The UN reports inadequate funding for additional containment and indicates that current efforts in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia are insufficient to prevent the further spread of locusts. While aerial spraying is generally regarded as the most effective means of control, several of the affected countries do not have access to the necessary number of planes or large stocks of pesticides. Since several of the countries affected, including Kenya and Uganda, have not dealt with swarms this large in 70 years, they also lack local expertise to create and implement effective control protocols. The locusts are also spread out over very remote areas, making it difficult to track and spray them.
Response efforts will almost certainly also be complicated by conflict zones, as most aid organizations cannot enter these territories due to the associated dangers. While many countries have attempted to mitigate the locust threat by deploying rapid response teams and aerial pesticides, some of the largest breeding grounds are in war zones in Yemen and in territory held by the al-Shabaab militant group in Somalia. Some aid groups announced plans to negotiate with al-Shabaab for permission to conduct aerial pesticide sprayings over the territory. However, if an agreement is reached, it will likely be insufficient to prevent a massive locust outbreak.
Threats to the Agriculture-related Supply Chains
Locust swarms are highly likely to wipe out significant acreage of crops, which will likely reduce the quality and available amounts of food products used in agricultural and food and beverage supply chains. The insects have razed at least half a million hectares of corn, wheat, potato, and sorghum crops and livestock pastures. A locust swarm the size of one square kilometer can eat the same amount of food in one day as would feed 35,000 people. Swarms during this outbreak have been significantly larger; one swarm in Kenya measured 40 by 60 km (25 by 40 miles). In one day, a swarm that size can consume enough food to feed 84 million people, a population the size of Germany.
If locust swarms continue to pose a threat to Pakistan, India, and China - the major regional source of the world’s cotton supply - shortages in clothing and household goods industries could grow more pronounced. Locusts have damaged cotton crops in Pakistan, affecting supply chains for these industries.
Food Insecurity Threats to Local Business Operations
Crop destruction is highly likely to increase food insecurity in a region where millions already face food shortages due to recent droughts and conflicts. Most farms in East Africa are smallholder farms whose owners rely on the crops they grow to feed their families, with any surplus sold for profit. Food insecurity is likely to be more severe in areas already facing stress on agricultural resources, particularly parts of East Africa that have faced droughts in recent years and countries currently facing internal conflicts, such as Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. The FAO estimates that over 33 million people could face severe food insecurity across East Africa in the coming months.
If food shortages become severe, the threat of looting at warehouses, stores, and delivery vehicles, including those of major multinational food and beverage or consumer goods companies, increases. Looting has occurred during food shortages in the past, including in the Lake Chad Basin in 2017, South Sudan in 2016, and Somalia in 2011.
The locusts’ destruction of crops will almost certainly lead to price increases on key staple foods such as corn, wheat, and rice. Protests over food shortages and price increases are common in the region and the likelihood of this increases if citizens feel their governments are not taking action to prevent additional locust swarms or provide sufficient aid to those affected.
Food insecurity driven by crop destruction is highly likely to prompt communal tensions between affected groups. These tensions sometimes result in violence. The destruction of grazing fields is highly likely to reduce available vegetation for local farming and herding communities, potentially increasing already existing tensions between the two groups. Heightened tensions are also likely between local communities and internally displaced people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
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