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Desert locusts are eating their way through East Africa on a scale not seen in decades. These are migratory pests that under the right conditions can reproduce quickly and form massive swarms. These swarms travel from field to field eating and reproducing, and this sometimes includes crops meant for human consumption or grasslands on which herders graze their livestock. It is estimated that a swarm of locusts, the size of one square kilometer can eat as much food in a day as 35,000 people. Right now, Ethiopia and Somalia are experiencing their worst locust situation in 25 years. For parts of Kenya, the swarms are larger than at any time in the last 70 years. Needless to say, this is a region of the world already vulnerable to food shortages, be it from drought or conflict. Now, these massive swarms are threatening to plunge this region deeper into crisis. On the line with me to help explain the desert locust situation is Keith Cressman of the UN food and agriculture organization, the FAO.
He’s been studying desert locusts for decades. In fact, he is the senior desert locust forecasting officer at the UN FAO. In this conversation, he explains why we are seeing this historic upsurge in desert locusts in East Africa. Their impact on lives and livelihoods of the people in this region and what can be done to control the swarms and mitigate their impact. Obviously, this desert locust crisis in East Africa comes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result, I think this particular crisis is not getting the attention it deserves. So I was glad to have this conversation.
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All right, now here is my conversation with Keith Cressman, the senior desert locust forecasting officer at the United nations food and agriculture organization. So, being a desert locust forecaster is a full time position at the FAO?
And I think over the course of this conversation, we’ll learn why it is that the FAO and the international community more broadly is so sort of deeply concerned and interested in learning more about desert locusts. Before we get there though, can you just explain what is a desert locust?
Right, a desert locust is basically a souped up grasshopper is like a grasshopper and steroids. It’s different than a grasshopper. I mean it looks exactly like a grasshopper and many people confuse the two. but the difference is that desert locusts have this ability to change their behavior in response to environmental conditions. And so what that means is that under optimal conditions they can reproduce very well, and they change from being a solitary insect, in the middle of the desert, to one that’s part of a gang, part of a group. and for many years, up until the late 1920s people thought that these were two completely different insects, but it’s just one insect that does this kinda Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde trick. and it’s not only changing the behavior, but they changed their appearance as well.
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, normally desert locusts are on their own. They’re what we call solitarius. so they’re just out there in the desert. They’re trying to survive, waiting for the next rains so that they can finish their maturation and then, and then lay eggs because obviously that’s their objective in life is simply just to reproduce. so when they’re solitarius of course their color blends in with the desert surroundings. So the adults are kind of a dusty kind of grayish brown, so it matches the sands. the hoppers, these are the wingless nymphs the larval stage you know, that aren’t adults yet. It’s like kids for us. they’re green color, so they match the vegetation, they blend in with the vegetation. And then when they increase it in numbers because of really good rainfall and environmental conditions and they start to change their behavior and they become more and more, what we call, Gregarious.
So they part, they first kind of start to make small groups and concentrate in those, and then they become larger and denser, and then they can form these magnificent swarms of adults or these what we call hopper bands, bands of these wingless nymphs. so they’re changing their behavior and again, they’re changing their color. So instead of being a green solitarius hopper or brown kind of solitarius adult the hoppers become a bright yellow, black kind of black spotted thing. And, and the immature adults, the ones that aren’t sexually mature yet, they’re a bright pink color. And then when they become sexually mature and ready to reproduce they’re a bright yellow color. So you can see the differences of the colors and why people were confused for hundreds and hundreds of years until they sorted this out. But also you have to understand like, why, why is this, why are they changing colors like this? And this is one of the gazillion kinds of survival mechanisms that has evolved over time with the desert locusts. Cause you know, they’re one of the oldest creatures on the planet, kind of like cockroaches and other really wonderful things.
Exactly. And so the reason being is of course, when they’re alone as individuals, they’re targets for predators like birds and reptiles and small ruminants and these things. So they need to blend into the environment. So it’s like a camouflage thing. but when they’re in a group of course as a hopper band or as a desert locust swarm, of course they are too, they’re targets, aren’t they? And there’s lots of ’em so, you know, the predators would think it’s kind of a delight. So the locusts paint themselves in bright colors and in nature bright colors, especially kinds of yellows and pinks, these things are a sign of danger to other predators as other other kinds of animals that would like to eat them. So it’s like, Whoa. They see this bright color and they say, Hey, no, no, no, no. This is going to be like, poisonous is going to give me a stomachache. I’m not going to eat it.
Well, just, just as their title indicates, they’re in the deserts and so they’re an old world species, which means that they are in Africa and the deserts of Africa, the near East and Southwest Asia. So that’s basically the Sahara desert, which stretches from, from West Africa, from Senegal and Morocco, all the way across to to Egypt in Sudan and to the Red Sea. and then there in the, in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula the Persian Gulf and all the way to, to the deserts on both sides of the India, Pakistan border. they’re not in America or in the Americas because they haven’t managed, they’ve managed to cross the Atlantic ocean, but they’ve never become established in the Americas. They’re not further North in Asia and Russia because they can’t get over the Himalayan mountains. So there are some barriers to their migration. And elsewhere, like in Europe or in central Africa or Southern Africa, it’s just not, their habitat is too wet, it’s too humid, and they would pick up diseases and die off.
So I’ve been covering the UN and humanitarian issues for many, many years. And you know, every once in a while I will across my transom see a note from like the World Food Program or the FAO about a desert locust plague and it’ll pique my curiosity. But you know, over the last couple of months I’ve been seeing increasingly alarming notes from the FAO and the World Food Program and even OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at the UN about this sort of historic desert locust, I don’t know what the word is, surge or swarm or infestation. but right now the numbers are sort of epic and, and historic. Why is that? Why are we seeing this surge right now?
Well, first of all, of course these surges they don’t happen overnight. It’s not like an earthquake or a cyclone or something that’s really quick to happen. These things evolve. They develop over time and it takes a long time for so-called desert locusts plagues to kind of build up. normally when these locals are solitarius and they’re individuals in the desert, they’re not causing any harm. It’s what we call a recession period, a calm period. but then they will take advantage, as I mentioned, of really good, exceptional, unusual rainfall in the desert, greens in the desert, it might be in a very small area. And, and so then they will increase the numbers in what we call an outbreak. And this can be in just a small corner of a country. Now if these outbreaks aren’t detected and if they’re not controlled then they can increase, they can cover more of that country, they can spread to other countries in the region.
And then it becomes what we call an upsurge. And an upsurge is like one step before a plague. So at the moment, the situation that we’re facing now is an upsurge. and the last time we had an upsurge was really 2003 to 2005 and that was in West and Northwest Africa, mainly the Northern part of Africa. And so it could be also considered like a regional plague. Now the reasons why these things happen, it’s all linked to rainfall. So in the case of the current situation, it started a year and a half ago. It started in 2018. There was two cyclones that formed in the Indian ocean, one in May, at the beginning of the summer and one in October at the end of the summer and this is normally when these guys form. And they brought heavy rains to the Arabian peninsula, a place called the empty quarter.
and this is where the borders of Oman and Yemen and Saudi Arabia meet. It’s in the Eastern part of Saudi Arabia and it’s empty. It’s just an empty part of the world. There’s nothing there, but towering sand dunes. There’s no roads, there’s no infrastructure, there’s no villages, there’s no people, there’s just nothing there. And it’s very, very remote. You can’t get into these areas because of those sand dunes. So anyway, these cyclones, they brought really heavy rains in May to the empty quarter and the second cyclone in October brought rains as well to the same area. And this is extraordinarily unusual. I mean, it’s unusual, first of all, to have two cyclones in, in a year, but then to have them bring rains in the exactly the same place, it is really, really phenomenal. So what happened of course, is the winds that are associated with the cyclone, they gathered up all of the locusts that were, the single solitarius locusts, that were in the region probably that were in Northeastern Africa, were in the Arabian peninsula, Southwest Asia. And then they brought them into these areas and they concentrated in those areas. And of course they reproduced. Now a locust lives about three months. And with each new generation, a locust increases 20 times. So, this can increase…
That’s right. That, that are alive, that live to adulthood. A locust female lays about 300 eggs. But, but you know, about 90% or more of those die of course. Huh. So what happens is after 20 months I mean, after three months, you’ve got 20 times the number of locusts. After six months, you’ve got 400 times the number of locusts and after nine months you have 8,000 times the number of locusts that you started with. So it’s this type of, you know, kind of increase that occurs when there’s really good conditions. So those cyclones allowed, in fact three generations of breeding to occur in the empty quarter. That was completely undetected and of course not, not treated. So essentially those, those locusts increased 8,000 fold. And then when it’s time you know for those conditions to dry out, there’s no more vegetation. The locusts at that point migrate as swarms to, to other countries.
Well, if you look at, let’s just take a look at cyclones because you don’t, okay. We know climate change, some of the scenarios we know it’s called, it’s going to get warmer and all of that sort of stuff. But as well, we’re supposed to have more severe weather events. And a cyclone is an example of a severe weather event. It’s also an example of how historically desert locusts plagues have arisen. So it’s caused by cyclones. Now we’ve seen, just take the last 10 years, for example, in the Western part of the Indian ocean, there has been an increase in the frequency of cyclones. There’s been more cyclones every year. and so those two cyclones obviously in 2018 were very important to the current situation. If we look at the number of cyclones last year, for example, 2019, there is eight cyclones.
That’s crazy. Normally there’s one or none per year and there’s eight. and there is even a cyclone in December. And if you remember, I said cyclones usually start at the beginning of the summer at the end of the summer. Well, December is way after the end of the summer and that cyclone in December brought heavy rains to the horn of Africa. And that happened to be exactly where swarms that had originated in the empty quarter and then they had stopped over in Yemen for a breeding, a generation of breeding last spring. That’s where they happened at the end of last year. So you can see that the swarms are very much integrated with, with nature and the weather and with the cyclones. So, I think that — the thought is that, the conventional wisdom is that, if there’s an increase of cyclones obviously it seems that there is a very high potential for an increase of locust outbreaks and upsurges like what we see this year.
And so you had these perfect weather patterns that seem to create ideal conditions for the migration and breeding of these desert locusts. When did this particular emergency, or the potential for a profound desert locust emergency happening now, first come across your radar as the person who monitors these things for the FAO?
Well, as soon as those cyclones occurred. So in May, 2018, of course, I watched them very carefully knowing the importance of them. And unfortunately we went through the rest of the year of 2018 with no confirmation of any locusts there. But I had a feeling, I mean, maybe it comes after three decades of doing this job, I had the feeling that locusts are there and they are up to some no good. and, and we tried to contact the national locust authorities in Saudi Arabia and Oman to try to get into those areas and have a look, but they just couldn’t, it was just too, too far remote and impossible to do that. so when the swarm started to come out in January 2019 and there were waves of them that continued for three months and some of them went North into Iran and others went South into Yemen.
I thought, okay, the situation is, I’m going to become worrisome mainly in Yemen. We know because of the civil conflict it is not possible to do any surveyor control operations there that were very much needed. but the swarms also were getting into other countries that have very well established national locust programs that deal with locusts every year. They have well-trained staff, they’re equipped, they’ve got vehicles of pesticides. So I wasn’t overly worried. And in fact, the control operations during 2019 was conducted in more than half a dozen countries and they treated nearly 2 million hectares. So, you know, the situation was under control. I mean there was more locusts than normal, but it was not out of control. Then that cyclone in December that I mentioned that came into the horn of Africa, cyclone Paul went on the 6th of December. That was, that was the tipping of kind of changing a situation that was under control because at that time of the year in the horn of Africa, conditions dry out. So any of the locusts that were in Eastern Ethiopian and that were in Somalia, they would have kind of died out naturally. And so that cyclone brought everything back to life and basically allowed those locusts to breed two more generations in an area of Africa that’s very, very vulnerable to any type of disturbances to the already kind of fragile food security and livelihood situation.
So to that end you know, you had this kind of perfect condition in late December, that cyclone caused lots of breeding of the desert locusts. What has been the impact of these swarms of this sort of surge in the various countries in which there are these sort of swarms still present and breeding?
Well, you know, it always comes to timing and, and fortunately those, those swarms at the end of, of last year in December in Somalia and in Ethiopia, they formed mostly after the harvest of the seasonal crop had been completed. Now of course, those farmers that planted late and harvested late. they were hit very, very hard. But in general the harvest itself was not too much damage. Now, you have to think beyond farmers though, because in the horn of Africa, there’s a very large number of pastoralists that rely on pastures, green pastures to feed their camels and their goats and their other smaller animals.
And of course these animals are important for their livelihoods, but also for their food source for, for meat and for the milk source for children. So if the pastures are damaged, this can have very substantial implications on families basically. Fortunately, the crops were not hit hard, but the pastures were, that was very unfortunate. Now we’re in a situation with the next generation of swarms are just starting to form as we speak, in Ethiopia, in Southern Somalia, and in Kenya, throughout Northern and central Kenya. And unfortunately, coming back to the timing this coincides with the beginning of the seasonal rains in the horn of Africa and the main planting season. So you can imagine if you’re a farmer there and you’re surrounded by hungry, immature, very voracious, very mobile swarms you might not plant or you might delay your planting. And in either case that will have serious repercussions on your harvest.
Okay, so arms can range tremendously in size. They can be around a square kilometer, which is about a hundred hectares. They can be tens of square kilometers, they can be hundreds of square kilometers. There was one single swarm that was reported and accurately measured in Northern Kenya in early January that was 40 kilometers long by 60 kilometers wide. So that’s one single swarm. Now a square kilometer of swarm will contain something between 40 to 80 million locusts. Okay? Now we’re going to do some high level maths here. Okay? So each locust will consume its own body weight of food in a day, which is about two and a half grams. So you start to multiply it out and you get into huge numbers. But essentially that’s equivalent to one square kilometers swarm will eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.
So now I’m going to get away from the maths cause that was really hard to understand any of that. But let me try to put it in a different perspective. a swarm the size of Rome cause that’s where I’m living, and Rome is not a very big town, will eat the same amount of food in one day as everybody in Kenya, right? And similarly swarm the size of New York City, Manhattan will eat the same amount of food in one day as everybody in New York and California.
So I mean what you’re sort of saying is, is you know, this is a huge food security issue. You know, this is already an extremely vulnerable part of the world in terms of food security, susceptible to drought and in parts of Somalia conflict. and here you are adding an extra stressor on top of an already vulnerable situation. I mean, are you seeing already these food security and hunger impacts in this area without getting into too much detail? Just to let people know, the FAO and the World Food Program have levels of food security from one to five, five being famine. Where are we on that scale in some of these areas?
Most of those areas are on the scale at number four, so they’re what we call acute insecure food insecurity. So they’re one step down below famine. and, and you have to also realize that more than 75% of the people in Ethiopia as well as in Kenya, rely on agriculture for their livelihood. So there is really this year an unprecedented threat to, to food security and livelihoods in the horn of Africa. Now we haven’t seen that yet, but it’s coming up because remember we’re at the beginning of the planting season. We were at the beginning of the growing season. So as a farmers are planting, you have the current generation of new swarms that are forming and if they stay in Kenya and Southern Ethiopia, which they should for another generation of breeding, then that generation of swarms will start to form about the time when the farmers will be harvesting their crops later in June or sometime in mid part of the summer. So the timing here is really bad.
And I mean it could push, it seems, the food security situation to that near famine scale. I mean, it’s already near famine, but is famine a potential outcome here if mitigation, and we’ll talk about mitigation strategies in a minute, if mitigation is not sort of taken up?
I mean, I think it’s difficult to say because of course there’s a number of variables here in the equation. I mean, you not only have the desert locusts on themselves but of course you have those control operations. So, so much depends on the effectiveness of the control operations of finding a sufficiently large proportion of the populations to treat. Of course, they’re not trying to kill every last locust, but we’re trying to reduce the pressure on food security and livelihoods. And it also much depends on how the seasonal rains will pan out for the next three or four months.
Well, normally you know, I guess a good analogy is kinda like a forest fires and wildfires. It’s kind of the same with desert locusts. So, when this problem is really small, as I mentioned, you have an outbreak that’s kind of like a campfire, right? And, and if you find the campfire, you just kind of put it out with your car extinguisher, don’t you? And desert locust outbreaks, you can really kind of put them under control by handheld spraying equipment or backpack spraying equipment. But if you fail in that and the weather cooperates with the locusts, or the forest fire and in our example then you know, the campfire spreads into a bushfire and then the bushfire turns into a forest fire, which would be like kind of an upsurge that we have now.
And if all that fails, it turns into these wildfires that Australia had this past year and, and desert locusts plague would be the locust equivalent of all of that. So you know, when you have these forest fires or wildfires, of course, you’re not trying to put it out with your, your car fire extinguisher, your garden hose. I mean, you’re bringing an aircraft aren’t you? And you’re dumping on a fire, a fire retardant there to bring that under control. It’s the same with desert locusts. So when you reach this magnitude, this scale of infestations and problem of course the only effective means of trying to reduce the locusts and control them is by air, is aerial spraying of, of chemical pesticides or biological pesticides directly onto, onto the locusts themselves, whether it’s a swarm of locusts or, or it’s the hopper bounds on the ground.
and presumably that costs money and time and resources. Do you have the funding you need to conduct the adequate mitigation and control efforts to prevent sort of the worst case scenario, or even like a medium range bad case scenario, from unfolding right now?
Fortunately, the countries initially spent all of their resources and put all their resources into the fight against the locusts. But you know, the locusts very quickly overwhelmed that. And so in January, FAO appealed to the international donor community to our partners for about $76 million at that time. one month later it was $138 million and just recently has been revised to $153 million.
Exactly. Of course, the problem is just getting bigger and so if the problem is bigger, it’s going to be more expensive and more, more complicated to bring it under control. Now we’ve had you know, a good response from the international community. Um we had the initial response of course is a bit slow, but this is very normal. But now it’s picked up even despite other, other competing emergencies around the, we still have a gap. We do have a funding gap of, I think we have so far obtained about $103 million out of the 153. So there’s still a little bit of a ways to go. There’s money in the pipeline, so we are getting close. So this is very good news in this kind of gloom and doom tale, that at least the funding is, it is coming and is now turning that funding into action of course, which is paramount.
this means that increasing upscaling those aerial control operations, bringing in more aircraft, bringing in more pilots, more ground logisticians of course the, the pesticides or the bio pesticides to feed the aircraft on the necessary ground teams, the sprayers as well that is supplemented by, by vehicles, spraying. all of these things, they have to be in a place and, and it’s kind of well-orchestrated it’s kinda like a well choreographed dance. You know, if you miss one step, you look like kind of a fool on the dance floor. It’s the same with desert locusts control operations and you know, it’s really challenging Mark in the sense that these places are huge. They’re very very broad. There’s huge planes, kinda endless planes. In some cases they’re insecure and other places they’re, they’re just remote or inaccessible, but you know, locusts are in there and they’re breeding and they’re increasing. And at the same time, of course we’re in between the rainy seasons in and for example in Kenya, so it’s supposed to be the dry season for this year. Somehow this year the dry season was pretty wet. So that was completely favorable for continued locust survival and reproduction.
So finally, in the next sort of days or weeks or months, what sort of indicators will you be looking towards that would suggest to you whether or not the situation can be brought under control? Is it, is it really, it’s sort of a matter of weather patterns.
I’ll be watching of course, very, very carefully how the seasonal rains that are just starting, how they’re going to perform in the next couple of months as well as watching for the wind patterns to see if there’s any anomalies in those patterns. because obviously the wind is very important since locusts migrate with the wind, they don’t fly against the wind like birds or anything. So keeping those under monitoring then we can provide the early warning to other countries that could get invaded because of course, early warning and early reaction, it’s key to any type of a locust fight. Now those places that already have locusts like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, I’ll be watching very carefully the conditions on the ground, you know, are they starting to dry out?
Because if they are, then locust response is often then to migrate. Are they still being favorable for, for keeping the locusts in place and then allowing them to mature and have yet another generation of breeding. The current indicators are that the majority of the populations will stay in place and, and, and mature and, and have another generation of breeding. But there’s always the rambunctious locust swarm that’ll want to get up and, and go invade another country. So we have to watch that as well very carefully.
Well, Keith, thank you so much for your time. This is absolutely fascinating. And obviously a very urgent humanitarian issue, but just I found it really interesting, so thank you. No. Great. My pleasure.
It’s just interesting to see the connection, I think, between biology of a thug to climate change, to its impact on the real life experience of people, and frankly also to international relations as the world try to scrambles amidst this COVID-19 pandemic to also confront this crisis in East Africa. Fascinating conversation. Thank you to Keith. And as I said at the outset, please do feel free to reach out to me if there’s anything on your mind. I know this can be an isolating and lonely time. If you just want to chat, feel free to reach out to me. I do love hearing from you guys, so feel free to email me.