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Sustainability News

February 4, 2020

Locust swarm location mapPakistan. Somalia. Ethiopia. Kenya. Locust swarms of near biblical proportions are currently wreaking havoc across a wide swath of southwest Asia and east Africa.

According to the United Nations, the swarms are the largest in Somalia and Ethiopia in 25 years, and the most severe in Kenya in 70 years. Firdous Ashiq Awan, Pakistan’s special assistant to the prime minister for information and broadcasting, called the infestation the “worst in more than two decades.” Both Pakistan and Somalia have declared national emergencies as they struggle to contain the impact of the pests' invasion. As a testament to the significance of the threat, Somalia’s Ministry of Agriculture warned that the locusts posed “a major threat to Somalia’s fragile food security situation.” It was a sentiment echoed by Qu Dongyu, director-general of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.

“This has become a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire subregion,” Dongyu said.

The root of the crisis can be traced back to Yemen, where heavy rainfalls in the last months of 2019 created the ideal conditions for the locusts to multiply and flourish. The swarms, consisting of billions of locusts, spread into east Africa from across the Red Sea and have been devastating crops since. Each adult insect can eat its own weight in food daily, and a large swarm credibly threatens millions of vulnerable people with a hunger crisis.

Such invasions are one of the many reasons Arizona State University established the Global Locust Initiative, with the purpose of "engaging key actors in locust research and management to develop research, partnerships, and solutions for transboundary pest management in agroecosystems around the world.” Rick Overson, a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a research coordinator for the GLI, explains the problem in an interview with Mashable.

In the article, Overson said that "we're not going to solve this problem as a human society anytime soon." Once locusts grow wings as mature adults, there's no turning back. They’re powerful fliers that can move across countries in days. And during plagues of the desert locust, the U.N. notes swarms can "affect 20 percent of the Earth's land, more than 65 of the world's poorest countries, and potentially damage the livelihood of one-tenth of the world's population."

While we may not be able to solve the problem in the near future, there are several exciting projects being carried out by the GLI and collaborators to better understand locusts in an effort to sustainably manage them. As part of its research efforts, the GLI has an underground locust lab in Tempe where researchers study the diet of the pests in order to gauge whether crops with lower carb content would be less appealing to the ravenous insects. NPR’s Joe Palca detailed his visit to the lab in his podcast, which includes an interview with GLI Director Arianne Cease, and explains how understanding locust diets could open up a new frontier for sustainably managing locusts.

The Global Locust Initiative in the news: