Locust outbreak in Afghanistan’s ‘breadbasket’ threatens wheat harvest

The northern “breadbasket” of Afghanistan is battling a potentially devastating outbreak of locusts that threaten to eat their way through up to a quarter of the country’s annual wheat harvest, the UN has warned.

After three years of disappointing, drought-afflicted harvests, Afghan farmers were expecting better this year – a much-needed boost for a country where nearly 20 million people are thought to be at the highest risk of famine in 25 years.

But for those in eight key agricultural provinces, mostly in the north and north-east, the large-scale outbreak of Moroccan locusts will probably be “devastating”, according to Richard Trenchard, the UN’s food and agriculture organisation (FAO) country representative.

The FAO estimates that a full outbreak of the Moroccan locust, one of the most economically damaging plant pests in the world, could result in crop losses of between 700,000 and 1.2m tonnes of wheat, the country’s staple grain.

Compounding the deep economic crisis that gripped Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the locusts threatened further misery this year and next, said Trenchard.

“This year they were looking at good harvests, and it was like the first time they were seeing a bit of recovery, and just getting back almost to normal. And, in this area, it’s probably going to be – for many, many farmers – devastating,” he said.

“In other areas it will be good, but in this area, the breadbasket, it’s just … something that breaks my heart.”

Afghanistan has had two brushes with the Moroccan locust in recent history, one in 1981, when an outbreak wiped out about a quarter of the national harvest, and another in 2003, when it claimed a more modest 8% due to a strengthened locust-control programme.

However, since the Taliban overthrew Ashraf Ghani’s government, prompting foreign assistance to be cut off, the agriculture ministry’s locust-control programme has foundered. This has left the country vulnerable, as the Moroccan locust is ever present and only requires certain conditions for an outbreak to occur.

Baghlan Province, Afghanistan. Local people dig pits to bury Moroccan locusts
People in Baghlan province, northern Afghanistan, use the traditional control method of digging pits to bury adolescent locusts before they grow into adults. Photograph: Hashim Azizi/FAO

Since noticing early last month that their fields were starting to become carpeted with locusts, communities in affected areas such as Badakhshan, Sar-e Pul and Kunduz provinces have mobilised to use traditional methods to kill the pests.

Thousands of people, many supported by FAO, were now engaged in the “backbreaking” work of trying to sweep groups of adolescent locusts, known as hopper bands, into trenches or tarpaulins to be buried, said Trenchard.

The effort is thought to have averted the worst-case scenario of up to 1.7m tonnes of lost wheat. But its scope was limited, said Trenchard, warning that for many it would be “too little, too late”.

“You kill millions of locusts that way. The problem is there are billions of locusts,” he said.

Already, pistachio orchards have reportedly been devastated in north-western Badghis province. In the past week two areas have reported the emergence of the first adult locusts, which means that within the next six weeks the insects will start to swarm, with each swarm lasting for four to eight weeks. The harvest is also due to start in three weeks.

Farmers, local aid organisations, the FAO and the agriculture ministry were now in a race to kill as many hoppers as possible before they turn into adults and swarm, said Trenchard. But this is to mitigate the impact, rather than remove the threat.

“[The outbreak] will have a significant impact. There is no doubt,” said Trenchard. “How big that impact is … you won’t tell until they start swarming and [see] where they go.”

The Moroccan locust consumes about 150 different plant species, 50 of them food crops, and all of which grow in Afghanistan. Its swarms can cover up to 150 miles (250km) a day.

Moroccan locusts are poured into a pit.
The adolescent locusts, or hoppers, are buried in pits. It’s a race to get rid of as many as possible before they turn into adults and swarm. Photograph: Hashim Azizi/FAO

It also laid far more eggs than most locusts, said Trenchard. “You tend to get a multiplier of about 10 from one year to the next. So 2024 is more worrying than 2023: 2023 is bad, but 2024 is when – if it’s not controlled – we will see something really awful.”

To avoid that, he said, FAO urgently needed more funding to ensure that everything was in place for chemical treatment to be deployed from September. Food assistance delivered through the World Food Programme – which has been reduced this year – must be maintained, he added.

According to the UN, its 2023 Afghanistan humanitarian response plan, which is seeking $4.6bn (£3.65bn) for urgent needs in the country, has so far only received $303m – 6.6% of the total funding required.

Locust outbreak in Afghanistan’s ‘breadbasket’ threatens wheat harvest