Skip to main content
Mitigating infestation

Mitigating infestation

Orlando Sosa is an agriculture officer specializing in crops with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) working under the Sub Regional Office for Eastern Africa. Sosa holds an MSc degree in Plant Protection and Entomology from Newcastle University, UK. He has 24 years of plant protection and plant health regulatory experience. Sosa joined FAO in 2003 to manage the International Plant Protection Convention’s (IPPC) capacity development and technical assistance program. He transferred to SFE in 2019. In Belize, he managed the crop protection and phytosanitary program and introduced IPM, managed several biological control programs, provided technical support to trade facilitation programs, supported the development of the pesticide’s registration program and contributed to the modernization of the country’s SPS technical framework. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter caught up with Orlando Sosa to learn about the impacts of the infestations of desert locust which swarmed many countries across Africa and the Middle East. In an email interview, Sosa argued that the locust infestation has impacted many East African countries with a revised estimated assistance requirement jumping to USD 138 million in February 2020 from the USD 70 million which was requested last December 2019. What remains in store for the whole world from the infestation is what Sosa explains. Excerpts:

The Reporter: How long will the locust infestation continue to swarm Ethiopia and the other countries? 

Orlando Sosa: Adult locusts typically live about 10 to 12 weeks that is about three months depending on the climatic conditions. During that time, they mate and the females lay eggs with about 50 to 100 eggs being deposited. Eggs hatch in about 10 to 20 days depending on environmental conditions. If one swarm contains 30 million individuals, of which we assume 50 percent are female, and they successfully land, mate and deposit eggs in January/February 2020 then we can assume that about 750,000,000 locusts will hatch in March/April.  If no control measures are taken and those locusts successfully feed, reach maturity and swarm again then we expect that a second egg laying will occur in May/June and a new batch will emerge in July/ August or so.  

The short answer is that locusts have always been here and will always be here. But only human intervention can significantly interrupt their life cycle should environmental conditions be favourable for the locusts to feed, mate, lay eggs and hatch and repeat the process. Since June 2019 – environmental conditions this includes food sources, have been very favourable and thus have contributed to the crisis we have seen. We expect to see more swarms emerge and breeding to continue. Only the success of the current extended campaign will determine if we can interrupt their lifecycle and contain the threat sufficiently to safeguard food security and people’s livelihoods.

How much money will be required other than the required USD 70 million which was set out earlier for the response measures? 

The initial appeal in December for resources was USD 70 million; however, as the locust invasions spread across Eastern Africa affecting more countries it increased to USD 76 million in January 2020. The latest estimate in February now stands at USD 138 million to assist the countries of East Africa from Djibouti to Uganda and Tanzania. This does not consider similar locust invasions occurring in the gulf countries that is the Saudi Arabia Peninsula across the Red Sea and another locust crisis occurring in Iran, Pakistan and India. It is known that locusts also migrate from the gulf countries, Saudi Arabia toward East Africa when conditions are favourable for their migration. Therefore, a coordinated programme is required to address these locust outbreaks in those hotspots as well if we are going to successfully stem the invasion in East Africa.

Last year and before that, it was all about Fall Army Worm and now it's all about desert locust. What is happening in this region?

Plant pests have been and will continue to be a hazard and risk to agriculture and forestry not only for East African farmers but also for the whole continent and globally. 2020 has been declared by the UN to be the international year of Plant Health in an attempt to sensitize governments, the private sector and citizens of all countries that they have a role to play to prevent the international movement of plant pests.

The coronavirus crisis clearly demonstrates the speed and the global impact the movement of people can have in the spread of disease. Similarly, the international movement of food particularly plants such as fruits and vegetables and other plant based commodities presents similar opportunities and scale for the rapid movement of pests nationally, regionally and globally. With the rapid and increasing movement of people, goods moved in travel and trade increases considerably the risks of new pests reaching new destinations.

It is therefore imperative that countries, particularly in Africa, consider strengthening their plant health systems that are designed to mitigate these risks through early warning, early detection and rapid response for eradication, containment or management of plant pests. The establishment of pests in new regions are compounded by favourable environmental conditions. As the planet warms up, more geographic regions adapt characteristics that favour pest establishment. This change in ecosystems further promote the natural range that pests occupy.

With this shifting paradigm, pests cannot only extend their range through normal movement (migratory) but can be assisted by people, transport and through international trade. This is what happened with the fall armyworm but there are many more examples of new pest invasions in the past 8 years on the continent of Africa.  The key is to enhance the preparedness of the relevant authorities that have the responsibility to confront these pest invasions and for the Governments, private sector to invest sufficiently to ensure these authorities are well equipped and trained to do so.

What is wrong with the early warnings and risk disaster management systems developed in Ethiopia and some of the affected countries such as Kenya? 

Every country in the world has established what is known as a national plant protection organization that takes responsibility to conduct pest risk analysis, regular pest surveillance, inspections at points of entry in a country and undertake control measures to eradicate, contain or manage plant pests occurring in the country. This system includes the collaboration of agricultural diagnostic services, agriculture extension services, national research institutions and a whole host of different stakeholders including producers and traders. If this system is to be effective, governments need to invest in them to ensure that their plant protection organizations are equipped and resourced with the people with the right kind of competencies and to have in place a well-organized system for the various stakeholders to be able to predict, detect and respond to new pest invasions. In this system even citizens have a role to play especially those who travel into or out of the country.

Their primary role is to avoid taking plants, seeds and plant parts such as fruits with them to other countries or likewise to bring them into the country without the proper inspection and, if necessary, treatments so that they do not carry unwanted pest organisms. The effectiveness of this system to prevent new pest introductions depend on the overall capacities of the institutions and their ability to communicate and coordinate efficiently.

For the most part, these plant health systems function well, as we could see significantly more plant pests being spread globally if these systems were not in place. The sheer number of pests that can be moved by planes, trucks, ships, shipping containers, beasts of burden and other conveyances in the transport of food within countries, across borders and across continents is incalculable. We have plant pests such as diseases (bacteria, fungi, viruses), insects and weeds that can be moved on every kind of plant part imaginable, i.e. seeds, fruits, leaves, stored products, grains and their by-products. These pests can also hitchhike on plants, in cargo holds of conveyances used to transport plants and plant products, on and in shipping containers and on packaging materials. The work of the national plant protection organizations is therefore not an easy one. The pests we have seen slip through this official system of surveillance and checks and balances in recent years are generally those aided by persons who ignore the precautions implemented by these frontline defenders, that is, the plant health inspectors that you see working at airports and border points.

Of course, some pests can move naturally under their own power or with the aid of the wind but these generally are rare occurrences. The other dimension of defence that the national plant protection authorities have is the implementation of systems of pest surveillance within the country to enable the early detection of pests once they are introduced into the country. Here is where many countries and governments fail. The resources to ensure effective surveillance coverage of all areas where plants are cultivated or where plant products are produced is simply too large and requires considerable resources. The system also relies on people, traders, consumers and others in the communities to report unusual occurrence of new pests in their fields, communities, urban areas and so forth. When reports of new pest occurrence come in from the field, it is usually when devastating effects of new pests are being seen. At this stage, considerable resources are need to react to eradicate or contain the pest. Therefore, prevention is key and the cheaper option. Therefore, governments need to invest in a proper, operational and functional plant protection organization.

What sort of mitigation methods have you employed?

Swarms are constantly on the move and depend largely on the wind to change their direction of travel. The Ministries of agriculture of each affected country are on the frontline in the effort to contain locust swarms. The FAO is providing early warning and forecasting through its Desert Locust Information System (DLIS) to each country on a regular basis. The FAO is also working along with its partners such as the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA) in providing training, aircraft for spraying, ground spray equipment and in many cases money to assist the governments to cover operational expenses.

FAO has also fielded desert locust expertise in each affected country to collaborate and coordinate with the Governments and Ministries of agriculture through the FAO representations located in each country. FAO’s response and support programme is monitored and coordinated on a bi-weekly basis with colleagues based in FAO HQ Rome, and in each affected country. Topics covered include procurement, human resource requirements, resource mobilization and communications among others. The status of the locust is monitored daily through the ground teams provided by the Ministries of agriculture in each country. The updated situation for the region can be followed on FAO’s website:

 Some experts claim that scale of the infestation is not as bad as what has been reported by FAO. What’s your response to that?

FAO relies on the information of teams on the ground mostly the Ministries of Agriculture of each affected country. Desert Locust international experts have also been fielded to provide alternate verification. All agree that we are facing an unprecedented invasion. How long that persists and the eventual scale of impact depends on the actions taken by the governments to contain the pest. FAO and its partners as well as the donor community that have responded to the calls for help to avert a calamity are working closely and monitoring the situation.

There is also another claim that the locusts are genetically engineered. Is that true?

Not true. The media and the public are advised to listen to official information provided by their Ministries of Agriculture.