Vast clouds of locusts swarming across East Africa, a plague that global officials are linking to climate change, show no signs of slowing as the winged pests consume crops, threaten economies and force airplanes to make emergency landings.

Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, beset by climate extremes and vulnerable food supplies, may see unprecedented job and food loss, and more of the continent is at risk with the plague having the potential to grow 500-fold by June, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said this week.

Climate change is already linked to spreading wildfires, melting glaciers and extreme temperatures. If these recent catastrophes weren’t enough to mobilize the public — fires in Australia, Brazil and California, heatwaves in Europe, and flooding in Venice — insect hordes destroying fruit trees and cornfields in minutes may. 

“Triggered by the climate crisis, the outbreak is making the dire food security situation in East Africa even worse,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted this week.

 Locusts can consume their own weight in food in a single day, traveling in huge clouds that can cover 90 miles in 24 hours. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, a swarm of locusts the size of Paris could eat as much food as half the population of France in a single day.

Projects to address climate change in Africa are attracting venture capital, though the focus so far has been on West Africa. Vancouver-based Terramera, a manufacturer of alternative pesticide products, recently drew $48.5 million from three VC entities to develop nontoxic pesticides for use in developing countries.

West African nations are seeking to help small farmers cope with the effects of climate change by adopting new agricultural practices. The Economic Community of West African States is raising $80 million through its Investment and Development Bank to fund the program.  

Conditions that have produced the locusts sound alarmingly familiar to climate activists. Extreme weather in the form of disruptive rainstorms in semiarid East Africa has unleashed crop-threatening floods affecting more than 23 million people already facing food shortages. 

Floods set the stage for the outbreak, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The crisis is said to have begun in Yemen, spreading from there across the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa, where countries like Somalia and Ethiopia have been distracted by insurgencies and other security issues.

“This has become a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire region,” says Qu Dongyu, director-general of the FAO. The agency warns that, absent controls on the locusts, the crisis could extend to 30 countries in Africa and Asia.

  • Aerial spraying may be the only way to stop the plague, says FAO, which is seeking to raise $70 million to alleviate the problem.
  • Farmers in Ethiopia’s Amhara region have lost 100% of their crops due to locust infestation.
  • A swarm forced an Ethiopian Airlines passenger plane to land in Addis Ababa last month after insects blasted the engines, windshield and nose of the plane.