Why This Year's Locust Invasion Is Setting Off Global Panic

Huge swarms can devour so much in a day that they could cause a hunger crisis.
July 24, 2020, 6:17pm

As if 2020 hasn’t thrown enough curveballs already, desert locusts are setting off a global panic.

From Kenya to Pakistan to, most recently, Argentina, locust swarms have been on the move. The infestation is most advanced in East Africa, which is experiencing the worst locust outbreak in generations.

There’ve been six major locust plagues in the last century, one of which lasted nearly 13 years, according to the U.N. But the current infestation in East Africa is technically an upsurge, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Depending on locust control efforts and favorable breeding conditions in terms of moisture and soil, the upsurge could spread even further and get upgraded to a plague.

A locust can eat about 2 grams of food in a day. So, a New York City-sized swarm can devour the same amount of food consumed in a day by everyone in New York and California combined, presenting a serious problem: Nearly 5 million people in East Africa could face starvation this summer.

The risk of a hunger crisis comes as several affected countries already struggle to deal with supply chains disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The go-to strategy for locust control is to spray swarms with pesticides. Ground surveillance and targeted pesticide operations require the coordination of many players, including national governments and the Food Agriculture Organization.

“We need to have lots of people reporting the presence or absence of locusts, because that gives us an accurate map,” says David Hughes, an entomologist who leads Penn State's PlantVillage platform, where local scouts can log coordinates for any locust sightings.

Experts are also studying wind patterns to predict swarm movement and warn local communities of approaching pests.

First-generation swarms have been spotted forming along the Indo-Pakistan border. Swarms are also expected to move toward summer breeding areas in Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea through August.

Video edited by Daniel Card. Animations by Hunter French and Gabriel Connelly.

Cover: In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, young desert locusts that have not yet grown wings jump in the air as they are approached, as a visiting delegation from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) observes them, in the desert near Garowe, in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)