A Scot dubbed the ‘Locust Terminator’ is playing a crucial role in the fightback against billions of crop-eating pests that threaten to kill more people in developing countries than Covid-19.
UN agency the World Food Programme is warning that parts of East Africa face a famine of ‘biblical proportions’ as massive plagues of the insidious insects devastating food supplies in countries including Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.
Swarms travelling up to 100 miles every 24 hours are munching the same amount of food daily as three million people.
The UK Government has pledged £18million to the United Nation’s emergency appeal to help combat the problem.
Glasgow-born specialist John Clayton has spent four decades waging war on the ravenous beasts – and warned these are the worst plagues he’s ever seen.
The 60-year-old said: “This is potentially even more deadly than Covid-19 for communities living in the countries affected that are seeing the worst locust swarms for over 70 years.
“A bad outbreak comes around about every 10 or 12 years, but this is easily the worst we’ve had to deal with. This is personally my fourth major locust plague, so that perhaps gives away my advancing age a bit.
“It’s compounded by the fact that coronavirus travel restrictions are making it a lot harder to get supplies over and conduct training. The locust plagues are a crisis within a crisis.”
Technical Director John has travelled the world with specialist firm Micron Sprayers Ltd, supplying pioneering spray technology, including specially adapted planes, helicopters and trucks, to wipe out locusts.
The firm – headquartered in Bromyard, Herefordshire – supports the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which has just received £18million from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) to fight the swarms.
The new funding is on top of £8 million previously pledged by the UK to the same appeal, supporting Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Tanzania and Pakistan to destroy the pests. A supercomputer funded by UK aid is also helping countries in East Africa to track the insects’ movements around the continent.
Billions upon billions of locusts are rampaging across East Africa threatening food security. Some of the swarms are bigger than Paris or New York and the largest this year in Kenya covered an astonishing 930 sq miles.
John has witnessed the apocalyptic moment a locust plague descends to strip a farm bare on numerous occasions.
And he said: “The sky can virtually blacken and it’s an astonishing thing to see. It looks like a big dark cloud and there are billions upon billions of insects.
“Even just an average swarm can destroy a year’s supply of food for 2,500 in just one day so if you are a farmer, and they land on your crop, it spells big trouble.
“A crop a farmer has prepared manually over months of hard work to prepare a small field of maize will just be stripped bare by locusts within an hour or two.
“It’s obviously very distressing and it is a cruel twist of fate that it’s people already on the margins of malnutrition are the people most affected when these locusts come out of the desert.”
John added: “Personally, my first big locust outbreak was back in 1987 when 12 million hectares of infestation wreaked havoc in West Africa. That was a massive one and took it three years to treat.
“Normally, we would already be in eastern Africa whilst this major outbreak is happening. It depends when it is safe to travel, and the restrictions are lifted to enable us to go. I dread to think how much damage this one will do.”
The current outbreak of locusts first emerged from the Arabian Peninsula last December – with the civil war in Yemen impeding efforts to get it under control.
John explained: “Locusts are essentially grasshoppers. It will remain a grasshopper when there is not much rain around, but when there is desert rainfall, these grasshoppers get to a certain density, and the mechanical action of bumping into each other, triggers in youngsters a different chemical in their brain, which makes them morph into a locust form that makes them take flight and become very gregarious.
“We’ve had a few years of relative quiet to be honest. There used to be huge outbreaks back in the 1930s and 1940s through the 50s and 60s and early 70s and I think advances in pesticides and good surveillance helped contribute to a dip.
“But this one is major. The rains started in Yemen and because of the security conditions being difficult there, they weren’t able to get it under any control.
“Coronavirus has made it just the perfect storm. They are not just dealing with locusts, but coronavirus, and internal security issues. It’s a triple whammy for some countries, which is threatening millions of people with hunger and devastation.”
John added: “People in Scotland like a good moan about midges, but these locust plagues make that pale into insignificance. The situation in Africa, Pakistan and India is life and death unless we stop them.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The UK Government is proud to be supporting the efforts combating the worst locust outbreak in decades, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
“British expertise is playing a crucial role in protecting vulnerable communities on the brink of starvation, by helping farmers affected to wipe out these devastating swarms.
“Unless other c