Locust swarms descend on East Africa, posing 'major food security problem'

Ben Turner
Swarms of desert locusts fly up into the air from crops in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya, earlier this month - AP

Billions of crop-eating locusts travelling in 930 square mile swarms could pose "a major food security problem" across East Africa, experts say.

In the region’s largest locust invasion in 25 years, UN officials from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned on Friday that the pests could multiply 500 times by June.

Locust swarms can cover 60 to 90 miles a day and consume their own weight in food every day. Experts fear the potential devastation of the region’s crops and pastures, which already suffers from high levels of food insecurity.  

Kenya has seen the biggest locust invasion in 70 years, while dense clouds of the insects have also bombarded Ethiopia and Somalia.

An FAO spokesperson said: “The speed of the pests' spread and the size of the infestations are so far beyond the norm that they have stretched the capacities of local and national authorities to the limit.”

Local authorities have already turned to spraying insecticides from airplanes to try to control the pests, though the the FAO has called for international aid to help “avert any threats to food security, livelihoods and malnutrition.”

Guleid Artan from the Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC) said the region could be facing a “major food security problem” due to the locust swarms, which he blamed on a year of extreme weather that saw eight cyclones off East Africa.

"We know East Africa is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. We know this region will see more extremes,” he said.

Many farmers in Kenya have recently harvested their crops so avoided losing their yield to the pests, though fears will remain if the invasion is not dealt with before planting begins again in March.

Heavy rainfall creates ideal breeding conditions for locusts and East Africa’s wet season will begin in April, meaning newly-planted crops could be in danger.