Locusts are spreading across northern Africa, where countries face what could be the largest outbreak in the past 15 years, with potentially devastating impact on agriculture, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned earlier this month.
North Africa's last major locust outbreak, in 1987-89, was a plague by any measure. It hit 28 countries and cost more than $300 million to control. This time, FAO and countries have spent more than $40 million so far and are asking donors for $17 million more.
Locusts eat their weight in food every day, consuming nearly any plant they can get their mandibles on. When food is plentiful, the desert locust morphs from a solitary state to a swarming gregarious form. That happened in the Sahel region last October after unusually heavy rains, which "created fabulous conditions for the desert locust to reproduce," says FAO entomologist Keith Cressman. Swarms then moved to northwest Africa for the winter, where--despite insecticide spraying of more than 4 million hectares--they kept breeding and are now swarming southward again. Authorities are especially worried that winds could bring locusts to the war-torn Darfur region of the Sudan. There, Cressman says, control operations would be impossible.
Entomologist Allan Showler of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who led FAO efforts to quash an incipient locust plague in East Africa in the 1990s, says prevention efforts in West Africa last fall apparently were inadequate, and as a result, "this one looks like it could get into something pretty serious."