Locust Warnings Sounded for North Africa

ROME, Italy, October 11, 2006 (ENS) - Locusts could devastate crops in the nations of northern and western Africa, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned Wednesday. The FAO issued alerts after officials detected new desert locust infestations in northwest Mauritania, increasing the likelihood of an upsurge of swarms across the region if favorable weather and ecological conditions persist.

In addition to Mauritania, the possible infestation could impact Algeria, Mali, Morocco and Senegal as well as other sub-Saharan countries, FAO said.

The new warnings come two years after locusts decimated agriculture in the region, resulting in some $2.5 billion in harvest losses. The 2004 infestation was the worst in 15 years and the affected countries and international agencies spent some $400 million to control the rampaging insects.

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Swarms of locust have devastated African agriculture in years past. (Photo courtesy FAO)

A locust adult can consume roughly its own weight in fresh food per day, that is about two grams every day, the FAO says. A very small part of an average swarm - or about one metric ton of locusts - eats the same amount of food in one day as about 10 elephants or 25 camels or 2,500 people.

A single swarm can cover 1,200 square kilometers and can contain between 40 and 80 million locusts per square kilometer.

The current alerts were raised because of the presence of adult locusts in areas of recent rainfall about 150 kilometers north of the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, where the insects are concentrating on green vegetation.

The locusts have laid eggs that are expected to hatch in about 10 days, according to FAO. Surveys have been launched in summer breeding areas in southern and central Mauritania, northern Niger and in the southern parts of Morocco and Algeria.

The FAO is arranging for a helicopter that should arrive in Mauritania next week to survey larger areas once the eggs hatch. Ground teams started control operations last week and have so far treated more than 200 hectares. A military spray aircraft is also on standby, the FAO said, and Morocco has also launched survey operations in adjacent areas in the Sahara region where so far only isolated locusts have been reported by the military.

FAO's Assistant Director-General for Agriculture Alexander Müller said the current situation is an opportunity to field test environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional pesticides, such as the use of a natural fungus called Metarhizium anisopliae. The fungus causes locusts to stop feeding, killing them in one to three weeks.

The international organization expects that the current level of resources in Mauritania such as pesticides, equipment and staff will be sufficient to address the current situation, but whether external assistance will be needed depends on how the situation develops during the next two months.