Locusts swarm from ground vegetation as people approach Lerata village near Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Swarms of locusts in East African countries are threatening the food supply of more than 20 million people.
  • Now, experts are looking for creative solutions to deal with the pests — including eating them.
  • Desert locusts are the most destructive migratory pest in the world, and a swarm can eat the same amount of food in a day as 35,000 people.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za

Swarms of locusts in East African countries are threatening the food supply of more than 20 million people at a time when food is already scarce because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, experts are looking for creative solutions to deal with the pests — including eating them.

Desert locusts are considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world. They usually live solitary lives in desert environments, but heavy rainfall allowed their eggs to survive in unprecedented numbers this season.

The swarms first appeared in Kenya in late December 2019, with a second wave following in April. The region is now bracing for a third, possibly bigger wave in the weeks ahead. Locusts haven't been seen at this scale, in these numbers, for 70 years.

According to the United Nations, a locust swarm 1 square kilometer in size can eat the same amount of food in a day as 35,000 people, a devastating amount of destruction for local farmers.

"They have destroyed our maize, our pawpaw tree, so it has given us a hard time," Kenyan farmer Victor Juma told Reuters.

Control methods for the swarms include traditional pesticides, which raise environmental concerns, newly developed biopesticides, which are more eco-friendly, and capturing the locusts with nets to turn them into food.

"Go to some of those remote areas where locust swarms are actually prevailing — a lot of people are eating them," said Chrystanus Tanga, a researcher with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi.

"We think it's something to promote so that a lot more people will engage in this practice, rather than them shying away thinking that it is a primitive man's food."

But eating locusts could come with health drawbacks if they've eaten plants that were sprayed with pesticides, Tanga said.

"If these animals are being killed by chemicals and they happen to be eaten by humans, it's definitely going to have an impact on their health," he told Reuters.

So scientists at the insect research center are exploring other control options. Most recently, they figured out that a specific pheromone may trigger them to swarm. They've also found a fungus that can poison the locusts without killing other creatures in the environment.

While several countries and NGOs have donated over R2.8 billion to contain the swarms, making some progress, many fear the coming months will still be devastating.

"Within some time you just — all the trees are just naked," Kenyan locust scout Achilo Christopher told Reuters." Even they go inside the farms, they strip the farms, so it is a very big impact on the food security."

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