Locust infestations have been considered a pest since antiquity, but in the past 120 years humans have generally become much better at managing locusts, having learned how to contain them before they turn into large infestations.
Desert locust outbreak
How manageable risks spin out of control
However, despite having this knowledge, we frequently still fail at locust management. Starting in 2018, a series of unfortunate events unfolded that led to this opportunity being missed, allowing swarms of desert locusts to form and spread across 23 countries on multiple continents between 2019 and 2021, devouring their weight in vegetation every day. Desert locusts destroy vegetation extremely rapidly: a swarm covering 1 km² consumes as much food as 35,000 people in one day, and these swarms were often much larger. One mega-swarm alone, measured in Kenya in 2020, was the size of the country of Luxembourg.
people at risk of food insecurity
request from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in funding to fight the outbreak
2 million ha
of land in 10 countries targeted for treatment in 2020 and 2021
It began with climate change and a series of cyclones that created favourable conditions for locust breeding in the Arabian Peninsula. Political conflict and insecurity in Yemen, and later in the course of the outbreak in Somalia, rendered some breeding areas inaccessible even after they had been identified, such that the initial outbreak was not curbed. The ongoing cyclones with their strong winds subsequently supported the migration of swarms far into Africa and Southeast Asia, where the locusts not only destroyed crops, but also fodder for farm animals to the point of leading to the starvation of animals. Ultimately, the large-scale vegetation loss directly threatened the livelihoods and nutrition of an estimated 42 million people already at risk from food insecurity.
Food insecurity, poverty and a comparatively high level of dependence on subsistence agriculture make the population of the most affected countries particularly vulnerable to crop losses, and lack of government funds and capacities hinder the implementation of adequate locust management.
Given their cyclic recurrence, desert locust outbreaks will continue to be a hazard in the future, and may become more frequent and severe as climatic changes, including ocean warming, foster weather conditions that are favourable for swarm emergence.
Missing crucial intervention points due to regional and local barriers to management led to 23 countries facing serious impacts over food security and livelihoods. Climate change predictions indicate that conditions favouring desert locust outbreaks will likely occur more frequently in the future.
Lack of coherent national/global governance, unregulated exploitation of low and middle-income countries, limited governmental capacity
Pursuit of economic or developmental interests with a lack of consideration for impacts on the environment
A lack of perception, awareness or preparation in governance relating to risk management and response
Gases released into the atmosphere by human activities contribute to increasing global warming and climate change
Increasing temperatures in the ocean or atmosphere, for example from climate change
Even those surviving disasters or tipping point impacts when they occur can be at risk of short- and long-term health impacts cascading from pollution, damage of critical infrastructure, livelihood disruption or other consequences of systems being affected
Reduction of people’s ability to support themselves or their family, both temporarily or permanently, is an impact that is interconnected with many others, including health and food security
Just like people, nature also feels the impacts of systems tipping and various hazards resulting in threats to health and physical damage to individuals, populations, communities or entire ecosystems
Through their impacts on natural and agricultural systems, supply chains and economies, the impacts of tipping points and disasters can put access to the foods we depend on for survival at risk