Photo: Reuters

Locust update: Africa emulates Israel’s ‘plague on a plate’ approach

Israeli entrepreneurs have long sought to transform the terror presented by locusts into a benefit for humankind.

The Hargol Foodtech farm founded by Dror Tamir in 2014 actually breeds the dreaded insects at facilities in the Golan Heights and upper Galilee region. Hargol, which means “grasshopper” in Hebrew, markets a full range of products as part of its Biblical Protein line, including oven-dried snacks, energy bars, chocolate, nectars, smoothie mixes and dried pancake batter.

Tamir told TV7 in an earlier, exclusive interview that he was inspired to establish the world’s first commercial locust farm by the Biblical passage in Matthew 3:4, where it is recounted that when John the Baptist lived in Israel on the banks of the Jordan River, “his food was locust and wild honey.” The company website also cites Genesis 50:20, “As for you, what you intended against me for evil, God intended for good, in order to accomplish a day like this—to preserve the lives of many people.”

Locusts are “an amazing solution to the global search for a healthier and more sustainable source for protein,” said the Israeli agriculturalist.

Scientists in Kenya are also investigating how the same destructive pests that cause widespread damage to crops could themselves be turned into a form of sustenance for the estimated 1 billion people across Africa and Asia who suffer from the lack of protein in their diets.

Cameroon entomologist Chrysantus Tanga works for a pan-African research institute in Nairobi called the Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), which has been breeding desert locusts for research for over 20 years.

“As a kid, I caught grasshoppers for fun and ate them straight away,” he says. “They’re so beautifully crunchy.”

Just as at Hargol Foodtech, Tanga and his colleagues found that oil produced by desert locusts and other insects are infused with far more nutrients than traditional sources such as vegetables; and contain greater amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and antioxidants.

It takes about 20 kilograms of dried and crushed locusts to produce a liter of oil, which can be used to bake biscuits and bread.

ICIPE is now working with governments and companies throughout Africa to advance industries involving insects. While about 50 firms in Kenya are using insects, so far it has chiefly been for animal feed. It may be time to take a new look at how they can be used to benefit Africa’s human population, which is now faced with food shortages and rapid population growth amid heavy economic fallout from COVID-19.

The International Monetary Fund is calling on countries and institutions to do more to help African states that have been hit hard by a plague of locusts coupled with a collapse in commodity prices caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.

The World Bank estimates that 43 million more people are now at risk of extreme poverty due to COVID-19 in Africa, where over 1 million coronavirus cases and 23,000 deaths have been reported.

Current commitments from international lenders and official bilateral creditors would cover less than a quarter of Africa’s expected needs and private lending remains limited – leaving the projected $345 billion funding gap, said IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva at a recent conference. She added that while African states have spent an additional 2.5% of gross domestic product on average to help their populations – and institutions like the IMF have also stepped up – more aid is still required.

Learning how to turn the biblical plague that has ravaged East Africa since the end of 2019 could be a ‘blessing in disguise.’ The swarms have severely threatened food security on the continent; most particularly in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia – where farmers and shepherds have helplessly watched their livelihoods be ruined as swarms devour their fields and pastures.

Purposeful breeding of the protein-rich locusts makes them a good replacement for soy as a meat alternative. It is also a practical enterprise, in that these insects are capable of reproduction within two weeks in very small spaces.  The ICIPE’s Xavier Cheseto also points out that locust breeding also inflicts less impact on the environmental by generating 83% less methane emissions than cattle farming.

Other researchers in sub-Saharan Africa are also working on ways to turn locusts into food, biodiesel and soap.

While acknowledging the value held by the insects, it is still critical they be properly managed.  “You have to be extremely careful that the locusts don’t escape, or you’ll attract a plague,” warns John Kinyuru, a nutritionist who works for Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi.

According to the most recent update from the Desert Locust Information Service (DLIS) of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), swarm breeding remains prevalent in northeast Africa and Yemen. Even though ground and aerial control operations are continuing in these areas, the DLIS says “the situation remains worrisome and could potentially deteriorate during October because of recent breeding.” The formation of hopper bands and swarms in Yemen is ongoing, amid migration to the country’s southern coast.

Current surveys detect “substantial hatching and hopper band formation” resulting in the presence of “numerous immature swarms” in northeast Ethiopia. There has also been a rising number of swarms in northern Somalia, “including cross-border movements between northwest Somalia and eastern Ethiopia.”

There is concern that the sweeping of prevailing northern winds across the Horn of Africa has increased the threat of swarm migration from Yemen, northeast Ethiopia and northern Somalia south to eastern Ethiopia and central Somalia this month that could ultimately extend to northern Kenya in November.

Some of the swarms detected in Eritrea are moving into eastern Sudan, where the eggs they’ve laid are now hatching and hopper bands are forming. It is also expected that Eritrea will receive additional swarms in the coming weeks that may migrate from Ethiopia.

There could also be a significant surge of locusts due to “an extra generation of breeding this season” along the coast of the Red Sea, due to early winter breeding by swarms that began several months earlier than usual.  Saudi Arabia and Yemen have seen the formation of hopper bands on their shorelines, along with other locust groups in Eritrea.

There have been positive developments in southwest Asia, where the upsurge has ended. Only small residual infestations remain in Pakistan.

The number of locusts also remains very low In West Africa, where only small-scale breeding has been identified in the northern Sahel. There are also no expected significant developments in northwest Mauritania in the coming months, even though the insects may concentrate and breed.