Desert Locust Pandemic Threatens Livelihoods and Food Security

An outbreak of Desert Locusts in East Africa are further disrupting food systems already compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

April 21, 2020

The productivity and sustainability of our agriculture and food systems are constantly threatened by pandemic outbreaks of disease and pests. The Harvest 2050 blog is providing a weekly-updated list of resources and articles that explore the threats to agricultural productivity, food security, livelihoods, and environmental sustainability from diseases and pests that sicken and kill people, livestock, and crops.

The 2020 GAP Report will also explore these themes, as well as describing technologies, practices, and policies that foster productivity growth, while also mitigating the risks of pandemic disease and threats. 

We will keep this list current, so follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn, where we’ll share as we update this blog. Past resource lists are available here, and linked at the bottom of each blog.

Locusts Disrupt a Food Chain Already Impacted by COVID-19

Right now in East Africa, swarms of Desert Locusts have the potential to consume 100 percent of farmers’ budding crops.

This could result in an additional 5 million food insecure people in the region, where 20 million are already food insecure. On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to exponentially spread through the continent soon, bringing further instability to food production and distribution systems.

As expected for an outbreak of this magnitude, the human cost could be immense. World leaders are taking dramatic steps to dampen the impact of the current crisis, including large-scale pesticide spraying operations by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

A new FAO publication, “Fighting the Locusts…Safely – Pesticides in Desert Locust Control: Balance Risks against Benefits” describes the critical importance of pesticides in controlling an transnational outbreak of this magnitude. It also outlines their strategy for using the right pesticide, in the right amount, in the right places, at the right time. This will enable them to safely maximize the effectiveness of the spraying strategy.

This outbreak is a reminder of the importance of advanced seed technologies, appropriate crop protection products, and improved pest management strategies to mitigating the risk from the crop diseases and pests that are a constant threat to our food systems.  

A meta-analysis of 147 studies of the impacts of genetically modified crops found that varieties containing traits for pest-resistance and drought-tolerance reduced pesticide use, improved crop yields and increased farm profits.1

Safe use of specifically-tailored crop protection products are effective at controlling pest outbreaks, and ensuring they do not return once under control.2 Integrated pest management (IPM) approaches, such as biological pest control and habitat management, support the long-term prevention of pest outbreaks. 

Just as the world is bearing witness to the COVID-19 pandemic, better understanding of the potential risks of pest pandemics, such as Desert Locust, to food systems will lead to early action and avoid exponentially increasing damage.

As a ground stands by watching, a swarm of desert locusts cover and devour vegetation.
Credit: FAO/Sven Torfinn

Two new generations of locusts are set to descend on East Africa again—400 times stronger (Quartz; April 10, 2020)

  • Projections of the locust outbreak impact look grim as a rainy season approaches in East Africa. The rainy conditions are favorable for locust breeding, and could boost the insect’s population size up to 400 times.

Fight against desert locust swarms goes on in East Africa despite coronavirus crisis measures (UN News; April 9, 2020)

  • Responding to the locust outbreak requires overcoming significant hurdles imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Though pesticide deliveries are significantly delayed because of the reduction in global air freight operations, the response is focused on leveraging technology and collaborative efforts.

Desert Locust Outbreak at Crisis Point, Industry Body Says (Bloomberg; April 8, 2020)

  • The devastating outbreak impacts over 25 million hectares of farmland in the three countries hardest hit: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.

Desert Locust Response Overview (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)

  • This interactive data visualization tool shows what is being done in the horn of Africa to combat the locust outbreak. See how and where organizations around the world are contributing.

Alarm over Desert Locusts increases as new generation of the destructive pests starts breeding in Horn of Africa (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; January 29, 2020)

  • In this report from January, the FAO laid out a warning of the impending threat of locusts, noting that “a locust swarm of one square kilometre can eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.”



[1] *Klümper, W., and M. Qaim. 2014. “A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops.” PLoS ONE 9 (11): e111629.

[2] Fuglie, Keith, Madhur Gautam, Aparajita Goyal, and William F. Maloney. 2020. Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity Growth in Agriculture. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-1393-1

Past Resource Lists

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