Kenya opts for pesticides to contain locust infestations

By Claudia Lacave in Nairobi
Posted on Friday, 21 February 2020 16:42

A Kenyan farmer from the Kyuso region inspects her devastated field after a swarm of locusts passes through.
A Kenyan farmer from the Kyuso region inspects her devastated field after a swarm of locusts passes through. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

As the devastating locust invasion continues to spread in East Africa and a new wave of locusts is gathering, pesticide spraying seems the only possible option for Kenya, despite the possible risks to the environment.

Chlorpyrifos, teflubenzuron, or deltamethrin: these are the barbaric names of the chemicals, which are the tools of battle to stem the locust invasion plaguing East Africa.

On Monday, the Kenyan government launched a large-scale spraying operation in Wajir, Samburu, and Marsabit counties, where the swarms laid their eggs, and which have now hatched.

“This is the best time to kill them,” said Mehari Tesfayohannes Ghebre, Information and Forecasting Officer for the Desert Locust Control Organization in East Africa (DLCO-EA).

These four counties are among the 10 affected in Kenya. After Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, swarms are now reaching Uganda, Tanzania, and southern Sudan, while billions of eggs are maturing, promising the arrival of a devastating second wave. The first has already destroyed thousands of hectares in a region where 13 million people are already severely food insecure.

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As early as 28 December, locust swarms created panic as the affected populations tried in vain to drive them off by making a racket with all kinds of objects, including firearms. Although the Kenyan government set aside 200 million Kenyan shillings (1.8 million euros) to combat the invasion, its response was delayed for several weeks, due to a lack of adequate pesticides and an insufficient number of spraying planes. This enabled the swarms to spread throughout the country.

Late response

Many farmers did not wait for the government and turned to private companies.

“Grain farmers contacted me to ask for solutions,” said Timothy Munywoki, senior agronomist with Amiran Kenya Limited, a major horticultural agribusiness in Kenya. “Farmers have an attachment to their land, they can’t just sit back and watch it get eaten away.”

He pointed a finger at the Ministry of Agriculture, who he said should have been better prepared as the DLCO-EA and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had sounded the alarm beforehand.

This is the largest locust invasion in Kenya in 25 years.
This is the largest locust invasion in Kenya in 25 years. Patrick Ngugi/AP/SIPA

“Kenya and Uganda had seen this situation coming for a long time. They were not ready,” said Ghebre. “You need to have teams on the ground who know the behaviour and biology of locusts [Schistocerca gregaria], who are aware of control operations, and know how to monitor them, how to make predictions,” said Ghebre.

He has just returned from Uganda on a mission to train local agents. Since the beginning of the year, DLCO-EA has trained more than 200 people in Kenya and more than 60 in Uganda. The local government employees are then in charge of responding to alerts issued by the population, to observe on the ground the extent of the swarm, as well as its exact location and movements.

Target selection

If the swarm exceeds a size of 500 ha, air operations, using light aircraft flying at low altitude, are triggered. Ground crew members spot the insects and transmit the coordinates to the pilots.

Locusts are easy prey between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. “When you spray over locusts, you have to do it early in the morning, because they are immobile: to fly, they have to store some heat,” explained Ghebre. Airplanes may also spray a swarm in flight, just before or after it lands.

In Kenya, the response aircraft, now eight in number, are owned by the government, the air force, DLCO-EA, and Farmland aviation, a private spraying company.

Their primary focus is on immature, pinkish-brown locusts.

They are the most formidable, because it is during this phase that they are the most mobile and voracious. After this phase, the locusts — which then turn yellow — are less mobile and are mostly busy breeding and laying eggs.

An insecticide spray plane tries to contain the advance of locust swarms in northern Kenya
An insecticide spray plane tries to contain the advance of locust swarms in northern Kenya on 1 February 2020. Ben Curtis/AP/SIPA

After hatching, the locusts remain on the ground for four to five weeks. This is the best time to eradicate them. The insects, then in the “grasshopper” phase, are not very mobile, and it is possible to spray them on the ground, even on foot.

Environmental Risks

The pesticides used are numerous: fenitrothion, chlorpyrifos, fipronil, deltamethrin, diflubenzuron, teflubenzuron, triflumuron.

“With locusts, because they come in swarms of millions, we are supposed to use a ‘blanket’ of chemicals to stop them,” said Munywoki, who advocates the use of microencapsulated pesticides to limit the spread of these toxic products.

There is, however, debate in Kenya about this solution. “These products don’t only affect locusts, they kill ‘useful’ insects, such as bees and beetles,” says Munywoki. And without bees, there is no pollination, so no fruit.

The massive use of pesticides may unbalance the ecosystem and create a vicious cycle.

“If you kill the ‘beneficial’ insects that feed on other ‘harmful’ insects, it means that you will have to continue spraying chemicals to chase them away,” warned Munywoki.

The Department of Agriculture says all the tests have been done and the products are safe for humans and animals.

“If you drink one litre, it’s not safe. But the amount of chemicals sprayed is ultra-low volume. That means one litre per hectare is very little. In 24 hours, everything evaporates,” said Ghebre.

Other specialists have suggested harvesting them to eat them or using pheromones as bait to lure them to kill them. But at this stage of the invasion, when at least 70,000 ha have been affected in Kenya, the priority remains spraying.

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