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In Somalia, an unprecedented effort to kill massive locust swarms with biocontrol

By Erik Stokstad

Somalia, one of several African nations being hit hard by enormous swarms of locusts, is planning to control them with a fungus in what would be the largest use of biopesticides against these insects.

“Large-scale use to control an invasion of desert locusts would be a first,” says Michel Lecoq, a retired entomologist who worked on locust control at the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development. “If successful, it will be a big step forward.”

The moment is crucial, because the next generation of locusts is now maturing and could devastate crops planted at the end of March. “We have a short window of opportunity to act,” Dominique Burgeon, director of emergencies at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said at a briefing Monday in New York City.

In recent months, the Horn of Africa has been invaded by desert locusts that have consumed food crops and pasture. For Kenya, it is the worst infestation in 70 years. One swarm there was estimated at 100 billion to 200 billion locusts, marauding through 2400 square kilometers. FAO warned again this week that the insects pose a severe humanitarian risk, as nearly 10 million people in the affected area already face food shortages because of recent floods and droughts. “We simply cannot afford another major shock,” Mark Lowcock, United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said at the briefing. “Time is running out.”

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