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East Africa fights historic locust outbreak during planting season, COVID-19

Highlights

Parts of E Africa warned of a bigger locust invasion during peak June-July harvest

COVID-19 hinders aerial spraying, delays movement of pesticides

Crop loss in E Africa can result in strong import demand for staples

New Delhi — East Africa is grappling with the worst locust outbreak in decades, and as the region enters its main cropping season, concerns of crop loss and worsening food security are becoming a reality.

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Not only are the region's governments facing the possibility of having to import staples as their purchasing power diminish, but their efforts to eradicate these pests are challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The outbreak of second generation locusts in East Africa coincided with the peak planting season of the major bread baskets of the region -- March to May -- also their most important rainfall period.

The locust invasion during this period has raised concerns of significant crop damage and threatened the region's already precarious food security situation, the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report. "The current situation in East Africa remains extremely alarming."

To make matters worse, some parts of East Africa have also been warned of another, even bigger wave of locusts invading over June-July, the peak season for crop harvest, according to the FAO report.

For most of East Africa, weather forecasts have indicated higher than usual rainfall, along with warmer temperatures, creating a conducive environment for the breeding of locusts.

Desert locusts are considered the most dangerous species of migratory pests in the world, the FAO said in its report.

In the six East African countries hardest hit or at risk of ravaging locusts -- Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania -- around 20 million people are already experiencing food insecurity, the FAO said.

COVID-19 HINDERS ERADICATION

Restrictions imposed by many countries to contain the COVID-19 outbreak are creating challenges for the eradication of these pests, the FAO said.

Travel restrictions have hampered the import of pesticides and potential skills or experts, according to Pertunia Setumo, an agricultural economist at FNB Agribusiness, a South Africa-based financial institution. Aerial spraying of fertilizers and pesticides, the most potent method of fighting the locusts, has also been interrupted by COVID-19 restrictions.

"COVID-19 is having an impact on the supply of pesticides as well as motorized sprayers," Cyril Ferrand, the FAO's Resilience team leader for East Africa said in the report.

The biggest challenge, according to FAO, is the delay in delivery of pesticides due to the substantial reduction in global air freight operations.

COVID-19 has been slow to reach Africa as compared with other parts of the world, but the pandemic has grown exponentially and is continuing to spread, according to the World Health Organization.

The pandemic has also resulted in the destruction of demand for key exports from the region, like cut flowers and tobacco, presenting yet another shock to the economy, Setumo added.

Kenya's main exports of cut flowers, fresh fruits, nuts, vegetables, tea and coffee is worth a total $1.86 billion, and Zambia has put restrictions on the export of staple grains such as corn to ensure sufficient domestic supply, she said. "Ethiopia is mostly dependent on international humanitarian support."

THE LONG-TERM IMPACT

The crop loss in East Africa can result in a strong demand for imported staple grains such as wheat, rice and corn, Setumo said.

"With weakened financial capacity of the government, it could possibly mean there might not be enough funds to import sufficient volumes, increasing demand for international food aid," she said. East Africa's export earnings is also likely to take a hit from the crop loss.

Along with Kenya, Ethiopia is also a major exporter of coffee, tea, spices, vegetables and fruits, which is worth a total $1.18 billion. The loss in demand for these exports, along with the locust swarm, is a real threat to the country's gross domestic product, Setumo said, adding that commercial farmers in the region may be discouraged to cultivate for fear of potential losses.

"Accelerated food inflation can be expected due to expectations of low harvest size for essential crops," Setumo said.