A Pandemic and a Plague:
Locusts Add to Farmers’ Dilemma
For a smallholder, farming is challenging enough in itself. A worldwide pandemic hasn’t made it any easier. But now, history-making swarms of desert locusts are moving across continents, decimating crops and putting huge numbers of people at risk for food insecurity. 

This story is an update from our COVID-19 and Smallholders news series.

Imagine you’re a smallholder farmer.

You farm a single hectare of land, growing a few crops at a very small scale that you sell to your community in a central market in your village. It’s not the easiest job in the world. 


For the past few years, rains have been heavy during certain seasons, leaving your fields wetter than ideal. Other months, drought undermines the health of your crops. 


This season, the reality of COVID-19 has made it harder for you to do pretty much everything. With the risk of recurring lockdowns, you can’t be sure you’ll get the supplies you need to keep growing, or how to sell your produce when it’s ready. You’re worried about how you’ll make a living this year.


Your and your family’s health are a top concern. At the same time, people in your community—maybe you yourself—are already dealing with hunger. 


On top of all that, you face another, different complication. This complication is about 10 centimeters long and weighs about 2 grams. Except it can eat its own weight in vegetation daily and travels in swarms of billions. 

Record-Breaking Swarms 

Earlier this year, massive swarms of desert locusts began making their way across swathes of Africa, then spread into Asia. While the locust is a familiar pest to farmers in these parts of the world, large swarms like this are rare. They may appear one year and then not present a problem for another decade. 


But 2020’s swarms are likely the largest most people have seen in their lifetimes. In Uganda, it’s the worst infestation in 25 years. In Kenya, it’s closer to 70. Now, as breeding picks up in India, swarms are setting similar records. 


The same periodic heavy rains that have made farming more difficult in recent seasons are what have made conditions so perfect for the locusts this year. In Kenya, a swarm hit in February that measured 2,400 square kilometers and consisted of 200 billion insects. 

2,400 sq km
is about twice the size of Los Angeles, California.

As it spread, it consumed about 400,000 tons of food every single day. That’s about how much food 84 million people eat in a day. Desert locusts can travel up to 150 kilometers daily, and in the right conditions, they’ll reproduce twenty-fold in three months. A swarm the size of Paris would eat the same amount in a day as half the population of France. 

400,000 with grasshoppers in front



That’s how much food the swarm consumed every day, which is enough to feed 84 million people.

And this is happening in a region where more than 20 million people are already food insecure. In one Kenyan county, 65% of agricultural production has sustained locust damage, and food prices are rising. On top of that, another wave of swarms is expected to develop over the following weeks, as wet land provides ideal breeding grounds for larvae.

Amount of agricultural damage one Kenyan county sustained in locust damage.

Simply put, it’s exceptionally bad luck. The convergence of two history-making events, the locusts swarms and COVID-19, is dangerous timing. The two threats are unrelated to each other in their origins, yet without decisive, careful intervention, they’ll have an identical effect: to plunge developing communities further into economic uncertainty and food insecurity.


Stopping the Spread

So what’s to be done? In the case of the locusts, there’s a clear answer: deltamethrin. 


It’s the one active ingredient known to be effective in combating the swarms; the locusts have proven too robust for most others. In the absence of chemical solutions, farmers often repel the insects with smoke, by making noise, or they will use plowing methods to destroy breeding and resting grounds. This year, though, the swarms are just too large for traditional approaches. 


Insecticides containing deltamethrin are already commonly used against locusts as well as vector control to prevent insect-borne diseases like malaria and dengue. Aerial spraying and treatment of breeding areas are hoped to stop the spread of the locusts. 


Decis ULV is a Bayer-made product with deltamethrin as its active ingredient, and it’s effective against the locusts in a low dose per hectare. Bayer has made a donation of Decis ULV to the countries that need it most: Uganda and Kenya.

The locust invasion in East Africa poses a serious threat to food security in the region. In this region, it is the smallholder farmers that grow most of the food crops that are sold in local markets…
Klaus Eckstein
Senior Representative Bayer South East Africa

“With Covid-19 making the situation even worse, our donation of deltamethrin is an intervention to support the smallholders in farming more sustainably in an increasingly challenging environment.”


Bayer has also stepped in to provide insecticide in India, where it’s using a novel dispersal method: drones. India is one of only a few countries to approve the use of drones for locust control, and in Rajasthan, a region particularly affected, drones offer the hope of more precise application. 

Drones offer the hope of more precise application.
Drones offer the hope of more precise application.

Coordinating the effort amongst local tech companies, governments, and academic institutions, Bayer is putting the best available technology to use to achieve the biggest possible impact. For local universities, it’s also an opportunity to collect further data about how drone dispersal works. 

Food Security is a Global Effort

Even as the world continues to contend with COVID, smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia are working hard to safeguard their crops from an equally present threat—and thereby protect their communities’ food supply


Because the food system is an interconnected web that stretches around the world, their efforts are an essential part of protecting the food supply of the global community as a whole. 


This confluence of events couldn’t have been foreseen, but decisive moves like this donation are a source of hope for the regions hardest hit by the locusts. If we can support smallholders in their time of greatest need, they’ll be better able to support the food system on which we all depend. 




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