Climate Change Helped Spawn East Africa’s Locust Crisis

Lambert here: This post is a little picture heavy, but I had no idea East Africa was suffering from a plague of locusts. What with the pestilence and war we’ve already got going for us, that seems very on-brand for Planet Earth at the dawning of the Anthropocene.

By Zoya Teirstein, a reporter at Grist. Originally published at Grist.

An alien species visiting Earth in the year 2020 would be forgiven for assuming that humankind had succeeded in pissing off some kind of vengeful God. This month alone, mega-wildfires ripped through Australia, massive king tides swept California shorelines, and, now, billions of desert locusts have descended on East Africa in an insect storm of biblical proportions. But climate change, not an angry deity, is to blame.

East Africa had an unusually wet year in 2019 — warming waters in the Indian Ocean produced a high number of tropical cyclones, which doused the coast and created “exceptional” conditions for locust breeding, Nairobi-based climate scientist Abubakr Salih Babiker told the Associated Press. Now, swarms of hungry insects are feasting on crops in the Horn of Africa, where millions of people already lack reliable access to nutritious food.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says a swarm the size of Paris can gobble up as much grub as half the population of France. To make matters worse, desert locusts can travel up to 80 miles a day and multiply at terrifying speeds. Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, the FAO said, are dealing with swarms of “unprecedented size and destructive potential.” Kenya plans to spend $5 million to curtail the worst locust invasion it’s had in 70 years. Meanwhile, the FAO is asking wealthier nations to take urgent action and calling for $70 million in emergency funding. The problem, the organization says, could quickly spread to other parts of East Africa.

Pictures from the ground show the extent of the burgeoning crisis. If these desert locusts aren’t reined in soon, the FAO says, swarms could grow 400 times bigger by the beginning of summer.

Invading locusts spring into flight from ground vegetation as young girls in traditional Samburu-wear run past to their cattle at Larisoro village near Archers Post. TONY KARUMBA / AFP via Getty Images

Swarms of desert locusts fly above trees in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya. AP Photo / Ben Curtis

A swarm of locusts aggregates on the canopies of shrubs at Lerata village near Archers Post in Samburu county, approximately 186 miles north of kenyan capital, Nairobi. TONY KARUMBA / AFP via Getty Images

Locusts swarm from ground vegetation as people approach at Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu county. TONY KARUMBA / AFP via Getty Image

Locusts swarm across a highway at Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu county. TONY KARUMBA / AFP via Getty Images

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. The Rev Kev

    Dammit. With declining insect populations around the world, why couldn’t it be a swarm of butterflies! Found an article which gives a lot of interesting facts and figures on these particular locusts, including the fact that “In one day, the average swarm can destroy around 192 million kilograms of vegetation”-

    But it seems that East Africa is not alone here. Pakistan is also experiencing the same. Here is a link to an article on it and when you see the map showing both East Africa and Pakistan, you suspect that the warming waters of the Indian Ocean caused both outbreaks as well as other places like Oman-

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Just curious — If a bunch of locusts were caught in a net and ground up into a meal … I would think that meal would be an excellent base for making a chicken feed or other animal fodder. Has anything like that even been done? and if not, why not?

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        chickens are much better at catching them than we are.
        guinneas are even better.
        even my usually lumbering geese get all spry of a sudden and lunge after them.
        i think storage would be an issue: they rot, and don’t dry that well, because they are rather oily. they stink terribly when they rot…especially if they get wet.(i have buckets of water under the outside lights as grasshopper traps, and learned about the smell the hard way. the grasshopper soup goes in the compost pile)
        for human food, you must keep them in a jar with holes in the lid overnight, so that they evacuate their alimentary canal, then remove the legs. I like them dipped in a bit of thin tempura batter and fried in butter. Fritters, essentially. then dip them in molasses or honey. taste kind of nutty, and supposedly super-nutritious.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I think in this case those “locusts” refer to the pods of the carob tree, sometimes referred to as “locust” , in the vein of us calling two certain kinds of trees the “black locust” and the “honey locust” over here.

  2. Amfortas the hippie

    counting my blessings, here.
    our have been bad for three years running(100-200 per square yard in july), but nothing even approaching that…thank the Goddess!
    my best hypothesis for our grasshopper problem is that something has happened to the birds that usually eat them…and pesticides/herbicides are the most likely culprit in that decline.this plague started a year or two after hay making became the main crop…which means former(depleted) peanut fields, which means initially weak grass. extension guy would have recommended the latest chems, at high initial rates.

    it ain’t lack of winter, as i can find no correlation—if anything, we’ve had harder freezes the last several years….same with wet/dry–the giant floods(30″ in october november 18) i had hoped would knock them back, but didn’t.
    I feel for those folks….it’s depressing to look out on where your food comes from and see millions of mindless critters eating it all.
    but unlike them, i can just run down to the nearest grocery store.

  3. Jeremy Grimm

    The locusts eat crops … but don’t they also eat vegetation generally? This post considers crop destruction and food shortages. Aren’t there also some unpleasant regional climate effects from loss of vegetation? Again just curious ..

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      seems i’m the resident locust/grasshopper expert,lol.
      i’ve boned up on my grasshopper knowledge extensively for the last 3+ years.
      they occupy the same ecological niche as fire, in my opinion….providing a sort of clean slate for things to start over and/or change(as in succession, like from grassland to scrub to woodland)
      i’ve watched them completely denude fifty mesquite trees, with no apparent long term damage(yet), except for no mesquite beans for 3 years running…same with acorns and pecans…which has effects on raccoons and deer and who knows what other creatures.
      with oaks, they seem to prefer the weaker specimens…those with wind damage or that have been knocked over at some point. i’ve observed one of the latter totally devoid of leaves and a healthy oak of the same species and size right next to it untouched.
      i’ve been expecting a commensurate population explosion of their natural predators…so far, the birds came back a little last fall(and i’ve been building bird houses every sunny day this winter), the lizards are at about the same levels as always, and the blisterbugs(who eat the grasshopper eggs) last summer(mom habitually slaughters these…i do not).
      the big black ground beetles(egg eaters) have yet to make an appearance, after 3+ years.
      i’ve witnessed skunks and coons and possums eating them at night…coons actually shaking branches and brush to knock them to the ground…division of labor,lol.
      and i’ve seen bobcat and fox poop with grasshopper bits in it.

      1. notabanktoadie

        and i’ve seen bobcat and fox poop with grasshopper bits in it.

        We had a cat that liked eating them too. A profit opportunity for a cat food company?

        And I can imagine a harvesting machine like a vacuum cotton picker going to town on locusts.

        As for storage, certainly freezing should work, no?

        Generally, I abhor the idea of eating insects but locusts ARE kosher and who am I to argue with God?

  4. Muftard2

    Are insects or people the locusts?
    Overpopulation and land disturbance in Africa is susceptible to locusts.
    There have never been plagues of locusts hundreds of times before now?
    Locusts breed when it rains a lot.
    Otherwise it’s complaining about drought.

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