Feeding 800 000 people

From the London Review of Books:


Day of the Locusts

Oliver Miles

Last month the Food and Agriculture Organisation issued a warning of a possible threat of locust swarms to crops and food security in the region from west of the Red Sea – Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea – across Arabia and into southern Iran. They first reported an outbreak in Sudan and Eritrea in December, following good rains in May and October which created the necessary conditions for locust breeding. In January, the Egyptian and Sudanese locust control authorities declared a state of emergency. Teams have been tracking the movements of locusts and spraying them with pesticides.

The outbreak spread to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the UAE and Iran with the risk of a further spread towards Pakistan and India. Locust swarms can fly more than a hundred miles a day. Local breeding has also begun in north-west Mauritania and southern Algeria. The next three months will be critical for bringing the situation under control before summer breeding starts. Success depends on effective control and monitoring measures – and on rainfall. The FAO’s Desert Locust Information Service, based in Rome, monitors the situation throughout the world and issues forecasts, as well as providing training and developing technology. But so far the locusts seem to be winning more than losing.

Most of the time locusts are just big grasshoppers, mainly green and brown, living solitary and innocent lives. But when food is plentiful after rain and the population becomes dense, they change their appearance and habits. The females lay their eggs in sync; their numbers can increase twenty-fold in three months. They become black, yellow or red, and extraordinarily gregarious, forming enormous swarms which can clear a field of everything green in no time at all.

They eat their own weight in food every day and, according to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, a large swarm may eat 160,000 tonnes of food a day – enough to feed 800,000 people for a year. The last major upsurge was in 2003-5 when control measures and food aid together cost about $750 million; the damage to crops is estimated at $2.5 billion. A locust plague can affect 20 per cent of the Earth’s land area and damage the livelihood of one-tenth of the global population.

The threat of locust plagues has been long recognised, and they have played their part in history both ancient and modern. The two crossings of the Empty Quarter by Wilfred Thesiger immediately after the Second World War, described in his book Arabian Sands, were organised and financed by the British Middle East Anti-Locust Unit as part of a search for locust breeding grounds. Locusts formed the eighth of the ten plagues inflicted on Egypt in the Book of Exodus (immediately following ‘the rain and the hail and the thunders’). Homer compares the Trojans fleeing before Achilles to a swarm of locusts fleeing from a wild fire.

According to St Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist lived in the desert and ate locusts and wild honey. Some have suggested that the word locusts here means not the insects but the seedpods of the carob or locust tree – perhaps imagining that an ascetic should be a vegetarian – but that seems fanciful; the word ἀκρίς in the Greek text is unambiguous (the scientific name of the locust family Acrididae is derived from it). Locusts are in fact commonly eaten, and can be a useful source of protein. According to the Book of Leviticus, winged insects are an abomination, but locusts, crickets and grasshoppers are an exception and may be eaten.

Charles Doughty ate them often among the Bedouin and even provides a recipe in his Travels in Arabia Deserta (1870), although he comments in his eccentric Spenserian English that ‘locust powder is not victual to set before guests,’ adding: ‘I have seen poor nomads (more often women) a little out of countenance to confess that (to beguile hunger) they were eating this wretchedness.’ Eating them is currently banned in Saudi Arabia because of the danger of poisoning from pesticides, but there is a thriving black market just now in al-Ahsa, eastern Saudi Arabia, with locusts going for about 12p a bug.

I experienced a locust swarm in Jordan in 1964 or 1965, much more limited than the real plague there in 1963. It was almost frightening, like being in a heavy snowstorm, but with the sky darkened not by snowflakes but by insects a couple of inches long. Two weeks ago strong north winds checked what seemed an immediate threat to Jordan. The Israeli Ministry of Agriculture was gearing up and checking its supplies of insecticides although the chances of locusts reaching there were still considered relatively low. The latest weather news is worrying, with rain reported right across Arabia, a recent thunderstorm in the Emirates and more than an inch of rain in parts of Oman – good news were it not for the locusts.

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