Flipping the perspective
Locust outbreaks can be turned from unmitigated disasters to opportunities for developing cost-effective protein-rich feed for livestock and dietary alternatives for human consumption
There is a millennia-long history of locust outbreaks in Africa and Asia. China has a 3,000-year history of dealing with locust upsurges and plagues. Over 800 such plagues were recorded from 707 BC to recent times.
From the 23rd century BC until AD 1911, more than 8,000 locust occurrences were recorded. Plagues occurred every nine to 11 years in this time period.
Between 1930 and 1960, they reached plague levels around 18 times across the world. But the period between 1965 and 2019 was a 'recession'.
Desert locusts are currently unleashing mayhem in the Horn of Africa. Their destructive power was in full display in seven African countries, with the pests initially tearing across East Africa with varying intensities.
The economic impact to control and prevent locusts at a global scale in the last few centuries was huge. When the locust swarm infested 5,000 square miles in China in July 2008, the government deployed 200 tons of pesticides, spraying biopesticides in 30 per cent of the area.
The economic impact of the locust outbreak in west Africa in 2004 was valued at about $2.5 billion, with $122 million needed to control it. Since 1611, upsurges of another kind of locust (Schistocerca piceifrons) reportedly affected every country in Central America with an average of three to five plagues per century thereafter.
In 2013, when more than 60 per cent of Madagascar — with a population of 13 million — was affected by locusts, around 2.3 million acres of farmland were sprayed with pesticides.
The situation was brought under control through three successive years of campaigns with a total estimated budget of $41.5 million. The government, with the help of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other partners, kept a check on the menace.
A call to combat
As of February 24, 2020, FAO's Locust Watch showed the situation remained extremely alarming in the Horn of Africa. The current outbreak was described as the worst in seven decades in Kenya and in 25 years in Ethiopia.
The FAO is currently helping countries in the Horn of Africa deal with the current upsurge to avoid further catastrophes in the region.
It called for an estimated $76 million in January to help scale up efforts to urgently combat the rapid spread of this pest. But as more countries were affected and the scale of need in affected areas became clearer, the cost nearly doubled to $138 million. The international community responded with a pledge of $52 million to date. While this was appreciated, there is still a large funding gap.
Integrated solutions at scale
In recent times, integrated and environmentally safer solutions are being used to deal with the upsurge of locusts. These include:
Preventive measures: Early-detection infrastructure — surveillance, monitoring and rapid target of nymphal bands of locusts — help in keeping a check on the spread of locusts.
Post-outbreak control measures: Using biopesticides help allay earlier environmental concerns.
In addition to the two options above, there are other aspects to be explored further:
Humanitarian support: In addition to control measures including biopesticide sprays, there is a need to balance efforts to include humanitarian relief.
An integrated approach including social protection: Countries need to put in place effective policies and governance that strengthen social protection schemes, including insurance to farmers, producers and local community dwellers.
Use of locusts to scale
Locusts are a part of the earth's biodiversity. Considering the availability of this particular insect on a massive scale, it is possible to build viable enterprises around locusts as alternative food and feed sources. These insects can also be a part of human diets, especially since the world's protein supply is inadequate. The FAO, in 2013, demonstrated the importance of insects as sources of edible protein in many cultures in Africa and Asia.
Superfood or super feed?
Locust outbreaks create opportunities to develop protein-rich feed for fish and livestock, including poultry, pigs, pets and other domestic animals. Locusts have high feed conversion efficiencies. The insects convert low-value carbohydrates like twigs and vegetation into body mass and high-quality food or feed.
Locusts are superior to red meat, according to the non-profit Food Tank. A locust as a food option has 72 per cent protein, including essential amino acids. They contain Omega-3, iron, zinc, Vitamin C, folic acid, B12 and chitin, without cholesterol or saturated fat, antibiotics and hormones.
Wild harvest of locusts
The challenge is that locusts are available in surplus — more than necessary for local communities to handle and use. So can locust upsurges be put into effective use at scale? Agri-food industries that already invest in insect farming can expand to wild harvesting.
The dry weight of 1,000 whole locusts is about one kg, the price of which is about $5 per kg in the market (higher in Alibaba). On February 19, 2020, Kenyan billionaire-industrialist Peter Kuguru, offered to buy and process locusts for animal feed at an offering price of 50 Kenyan shillings per kg. A critical mass of collectors is needed to sustain this activity.
Collecting locusts for food and feed is, however, only recommended where pesticides are not used. Locusts can be seen as low hanging fruits to scale up production at times of upsurges. This would require mechanical innovation in large scale harvesting and developing value chains of locusts for food and feed products.
An integrated approach for the prevention and control of locust outbreaks should be an important part of the resilience and social protection systems of more vulnerable countries.
For immediate control, pesticide sprays, especially biopesticides, remain the most feasible and practical option. Adequate infrastructure for surveillance and monitoring systems, budget provisions and capacity development, including effective policies for prevention and control are needed. Furthermore, the importance of using locusts as food and feed security cannot be overemphasised. However, further development in this aspect is needed.
Agri-food industries should consider investing on a massive scale on the harvesting of locusts for food, food supplements and feed for both poultry and aqua-feed meals, considering the sheer quantities of locusts during upsurges.
Views expressed are personal