The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has warned of a large-scale outbreak of the Moroccan Locust across eight provinces in North and Northeast Afghanistan, the country's wheat basket.
The sightings of locusts at different development stages have been made in Badakhshan, Badghis, Baghlan, Balkh, Kunduz, Samangan, Sar-e-Pul, and Takhar, with fresh reports coming in from Heart and Ghor provinces.
“The reports of Moroccan Locust outbreak in Afghanistan’s wheat basket is a huge concern. The Moroccan locust eats more than 150 species of plants, including tree crops, pastures, and 50 food crops, all of which grow in Afghanistan. It represents an enormous threat to farmers, communities, and the entire country,” said Richard Trenchard, the FAO Representative in Afghanistan.
“The last two big outbreaks, 20 and 40 years ago, cost Afghanistan an estimated 8 and 25 percent of its total annual wheat production. Harvest forecasts this year are the best we have seen for the last three years – but this outbreak threatens to destroy all these recent gains and dramatically worsen the food insecurity situation later this year and into next year,” Trenchard added.
The Moroccan Locust is ranked among the most economically damaging plant pests anywhere in the world. A full outbreak this year could result in crop losses ranging from 700 000 to 1.2 million metric tonnes of wheat - up to a quarter of the total annual harvest. This translates to between USD 280 million and USD 480 million in economic loss – as of today's prices in the country.
North and Northeast regions of Afghanistan are prone to Moroccan Locust outbreaks. This year has seen “perfect” conditions for a locust outbreak: drought, over-grazing, very limited locust control, and just the right amount of rainfall in March and April for locusts (approximately 100 mm). These conditions created the ideal environment for locusts to hatch and swarm.
In these parts of Afghanistan, Moroccan Locusts lay eggs between May and June, depending on environmental conditions, in hilly and rangeland areas. The young locusts hatch from the egg pods the following year in late March and start feeding on surrounding grasses. This year the hatching started earlier than usual.
“The alarm bells rang late, but FAO, its incredible NGO partners, local communities, and local authorities sprang into immediate action,” said Trenchard. “Chemical supplies were low across the country so we were forced to focus on traditional ‘mechanical control’ methods to reduce the impact of the outbreak.”
The FAO Representative said thousands of people in communities across the affected provinces have been working day and night to kill the hopper bands before they become adults and begin to swarm. “We've used our cash-for-work methodology to put money into the pockets of farmers most at risk while accelerating mechanical control in communities across the North and Northeast regions. We have also seen a strong, rapid, and encouraging response from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock, although their capacity to respond is heavily constrained by a lack of resources,” he added.
An outbreak that has an ominous and existential threat to food security in Afghanistan – and beyond
Typically, in such outbreaks, after decimating pasture, large locust hopper bands and adult swarms move down to cropland areas and eat rain-fed and irrigated wheat and other crops. There is not a single crop that is spared from Moroccan Locust damage.
If the Moroccan locust population is left untreated, it could increase its numbers by 100-fold in the next year, creating even bigger problems for agriculture and food security for Afghanistan and its neighbors.
“Chemical control methods are far more effective than mechanical control. Afghanistan used to have a very strong locust control system in place. But this has been heavily eroded in the last two years. At this point in time, all we can hope is that the mechanical control approaches will reduce the overall impact of the swarms. But we must start now to prevent 2024 from seeing even bigger outbreaks; a very real threat going forward,” Trenchard said.
In response to the threat, funding is urgently needed to support both mechanical and chemical control measures alongside on-the-ground surveys to monitor and map locust hatching sites, Trenchard said.