As East African farmers and communities scramble to cope with swarms of desert locusts this spring, they are also raising concerns about the impacts of the widespread use of pesticides to control them.
Locust swarms are moving through several countries in the region, including Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda. The threat to food security in the region is very real — in one day, a single swarm can destroy crops that would feed 35,000 people.
Government officials are moving quickly to control the locusts with large scale spray operations, using both backpack sprayer and helicopter applications. The chemicals being sprayed are organophosphate (OP) pesticides, including the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos.
Community health advocates in the region are raising concerns about how the spray campaigns are being implemented. They cite lack of adequate training and protective equipment for applicators, and lack of information for farmers about the potential impact on their health, livestock and food crops of the chemicals that are being sprayed.
Ellady Muyambi, Secretary General of the Uganda Network on Toxic Free Malaria Control, says his organization is monitoring the situation closely:
This aggressive spraying of desert locusts will have both short and long term effects. In emergency situations like this, the focus is often on short term results that can be achieved as rapidly as possible. The human and ecological costs are never factored in."
Muyambi’s group is also raising concerns about the health impacts when people consume sprayed locusts. Desert locusts are commonly eaten in many parts of the world, and Muyambi says Ugandan families are gathering and eating the insects immediately after they’ve been sprayed.
He points to research measuring pesticide residues in locusts after “ultra-low volume” aerial application of the OP insecticide fenitrothion, which is one of the chemicals currently being used in Uganda. The levels found in the 2012 study — which was investigating impacts on birds of eating sprayed insects — were 74 to 1600 times the European Union’s “Maximum Residue Levels” for human food safety.
“Given this, I think we have good reason to recommend that people do not eat the dead locusts,” says Muyambi.
Climate change to blame?
The outbreak is the worst in decades, and experts point to a changing climate as a potential driver.
Cyclones spur swarms by spreading the locusts and creating the right breeding conditions. Over the past decade there’s been a dramatic increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean each year, according to Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
“Normally there’s none, or maybe one,” Cressman told a Guardian reporter in an interview last month. “So this is very unusual."
Photos: Brig Richard Karemire, UPDF Spokesperson