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Locusts Threatening African Food Supply; Greens Oppose Only Solution

As billions of desert locusts swarm through East Africa and into Asia threatening the food supply of millions, environmental activists want to ban and regulate the only effective tools to stop it: pesticides.

How big is the threat? According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a swarm of 40 million locusts can eat as much food as about 35,000 people in a single day. If the billions of locusts are left unchecked, their consumption could increase 500 times by June, according to the FAO. 

The FAO has asked  for global assistance and $138 million to track the swarms and deploy pesticides—the only hope for stopping or slowing the devastation. The FAO has noted that the more than 20 million people living in the affected region are already suffering from food shortages related to recent floods, inadequate rain, and armed conflict. The locust invasion, if left uncontrolled, could lead to severe food insecurity for millions of people.

Yet activist campaigns to ban pesticides around the world mean the many effective products to combat the locust invasion are no longer available. In addition, increased regulations make development of new products less profitable and leave too few options for fighting locusts and other serious crop-damaging pests.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Bate pointed out back in 2004 that an international ban on the pesticide Dieldrin would hinder locust control efforts well into the future. It was banned because it was persistent—it does not break down quickly in the environment. But that persistence meant that farmers could spray narrow bands around their farms to create a deadly barrier for the juvenile locusts, which are not yet able to fly. Since Dieldrin was persistent, farmers did not need to constantly spray, but instead would have control for many weeks or months from a single spraying barrier.

In addition to creating barriers with persistent pesticides, Bate explained, locust control in the past also included spraying swarms of adult locusts with organophosphate pesticides, which are non-persistent chemicals that last only a day or so before they break down in the environment.

Currently, aerial and ground-level spraying with organophosphates, particularly a product called fenitrothion, is the main, if not only, line of defense against the locusts. Yet Greenpeace and African environmental groups funded by the European Union are pressing for the elimination of this last line of defense.

Richard Tren’s excellent Wall Street Journal article on this topic explains:

The best way to stop the locusts is to spray insecticide from the air. Unfortunately, Kenya lacks adequate supplies of the best and most effective insecticide, fenitrothion, and is scrambling to get additional stocks. The radical environmental movement, which seeks to ban fenitrothion and other safe and effective chemicals, has made Kenyan authorities’ work more difficult.

Since last September, European Union-funded nongovernmental organizations in Kenya have been petitioning the Kenyan Parliament to ban more than 250 registered agricultural insecticides. Foremost among these groups is the Route to Food Initiative, funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which in turn is affiliated with the German Green Party. The chemicals the Greens seek to ban are essential for controlling not only locusts but also common agricultural pests, weeds, and fungi. Even as locusts devastate Kenyan crops, NGO lobbyists continue their anti-insecticide crusade.

Of course, there are risks involved with using pesticides, and so they need to be used carefully and strategically to maximize the benefits and minimize risks to humans and the environment. As a brochure published by the FAO notes: “The risks of a locust plague therefore need to be continuously balanced against the risks of using pesticides.” Yet activists don’t care about balance, and pesticide bans place an unbalanced agenda above the lives of millions of people in Africa.

Anti-pesticide activists complain that spraying will destroy bees, livestock, and other non-targeted wildlife. However, spraying operations do not blanket the entire environment; they track where locusts are swarming, and specifically target the swarms. And communities are even using modern GPS tracking technologies to do so. A county official in Kenya who is in charge of local spraying operations explained to the press that they carefully manage spraying to mitigate risks, such as keeping a distance from waterways and human settlements to control the swarms of locusts. In any case, without effective locust control there will be little food left for livestock and wildlife and few flowers for pollinators. Control needs to strike the right balance, particularly since many lives—human and animal—hang in that balance.

Activists offer no realistic solutions. Greenpeace Africa’s suggestion is for Africans to avoid pesticides and seek “ecological” solutions—without defining what that means. Perhaps they believe news stories that China plans to fight locusts by deploying 100,000 ducks to the desert, but that’s not an actual solution or even a remotely realistic strategy.

I have highlighted elsewhere how pesticide bans harm agricultural productivity in developed nations, but as this case shows, the impact of such policies is far more severe in developing nations. Agrochemicals in developing nations are needed to fight a large number of otherwise devastating pests. For example, Kenyan-born James Njoroge explains in the journal European Scientist:

Africa’s agricultural community is still reeling from the incursion of another malignant pest, the Fall Army Worm, which in one year deprived Kenyan maize (corn) farmers of 70 percent of their crop. This voracious larval moth is kept in check in the Americas—where it is native—by pesticides and genetically modified Bt crops.

But, here too, the NGO activists are trying to dictate policies that will allow the insect plagues to continue, unchecked.

Hopefully, in the future we will find better ways to manage crop-destroying pests, but it’s not easy when activists fight helpful technologies—from genetic modification to pesticides—and anything that might enable African farmers to go beyond subsistence farming. For now, communities need to be free to deploy all tools available to get this situation under control.