March 30, 2020 | By Colin Christensen, Eva Koehler

Guest Commentary - The Plague You’ve Never Heard About Could be as Destructive as COVID-19: How the Threat from Desert Locusts Shows the Need for Innovations in how Organizations Scale

As you read this article, tens of millions of people in East Africa, the Horn and up through the Middle East are facing the prospect of extreme hunger as a plague of locusts spreads in the region. While the global news is inundated with coronavirus stories, the increasingly dire concerns about the spreading swarms are getting drowned out. The FAO has appealed for tens of millions of dollars more in funding to fight back against them, with swarms reported as far north as Iran, as well as major food-producing regions of Kenya which experts previously hoped would be spared based on typical trends.  

This threat is the latest manifestation of how a changing climate puts at risk ever-increasing numbers of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. It is a stark reminder that even previously stable environments are changing, and smallholder farmers - who make up the vast majority of the world’s poor - can no longer feel confident that weather and ecosystems will cooperate and bless them with enough of a harvest to earn a livelihood, or even just feed their families. 

The international community must do more to mobilize in the coming weeks to fight back against the locust threat. As we do this, however, we should also consider the long-term investments we must make to build lasting resilience to climate change among smallholder populations. If organizations and governments want to be in a position to quickly deploy high-quality technology and services in response to crises, they need to already have built the supply and distribution channels, and the community trust, when the crisis hits. In the case of locust response, success depends on getting key logistical tasks right across a massive region. Organizations must have the capacity to quickly ramp up the hiring and deploying of staff in very rural areas to carry out targeted spraying; quickly purchase and distribute seed for potential replanting; leverage already existing relationships to coordinate actions with governments in the region; and roll out new trainings for staff and farmers in just weeks, appreciating how difficult it can be to get them to trust new products and information.  

We ultimately need much more of a focus on these types of “scaling innovations” if we want to truly build climate resilience in the coming years. While the region faces desert locusts this year, past years have brought other environmental shocks, including the increasing frequency of droughts, floods and newly introduced threats from Fall Army Worm to new crop diseases.  Certainly, more climate-focused technological innovation is important to fight these challenges. However, this technology will only be game changing if it actually reaches into the lives of tens of millions of the world’s most vulnerable farmers; there are a few key priorities that are especially important on this front. 

One key focus for us at One Acre Fund has been to help large numbers of farmers truly diversify their crop mixes, which is critical to help them adapt to changing weather patterns: crop rotation or intercropping can serve as breaks in preventing pests and diseases, and plants with different root levels and leaf density optimize nutrient and water use and can reduce erosion. The right mix of new crops will also lead to more income-generation opportunities, enhancing farmer asset accumulation. However, despite the range of diverse seed technologies on the market, farmers don’t adopt them in high numbers. In response, we have begun to more closely pair training and distribution of inputs, while actively helping farmers consider market options. We are finding that a hands-on, feedback-heavy approach is needed to convince farmers of the financial and environmental benefits of making diverse crop choices. Through this method, we are beginning to see more success in promoting legumes in Malawi, citrus in Zambia, and avocado seedlings in Rwanda and Tanzania.  

Successfully driving smallholder adoption of agroforestry is also critical, due to the way trees improve the local ecosystem, and provide diverse food and livelihood opportunities for farming households. Building on our existing supply chain and R&D resources, we’ve been able to listen to what farmers need, and shift both what we offer (differing species for different functions), and how we offer it (tailoring seed/seedling or tree kit distribution to the local context). Our customers plant hundreds of thousands of trees per year, which provide additional, diversified sources of on-farm income, while improving soil quality and sequestering carbon.  

Finally, we’ve also learned difficult lessons about how to best offer agricultural insurance. Traditional resilience systems can be overwhelmed by multiple poor years - especially if weather events affect whole communities. Less than 3 percent of African smallholders have access to crop insurance products, yet providing insurance at scale as part of an overall package of resilience interventions is a key tool to encouraging farmers to actually adopt higher value crops, helping them to persist through bad years while still profiting in good years. One Acre Fund provides group coverage for farmers via yield-based index crop insurance, which allows us to forgive loans and help farmers recover some or all of their input investment during bad harvest years.  

The growth of index insurance itself has been a critical scaling innovation, as it allows for simpler payout calculations. However, we continue to see big gaps in the market. Most importantly, smallholders need access to insurance products which cover the loss of their actual harvest, rather than inputs alone.  Products like this would more meaningfully address farmer risk, but they are expensive and invariably require some sort of public subsidy; just like in the US, where the government pays an average of 62 percent of premiums.

We shouldn’t be scared of big costs like this. Ultimately, we will never succeed in building climate change resilience if we don’t invest dramatically more resources to the fight. This is especially true as we consider the priority most immediately in front of us: the FAO remains tens of millions of dollars short in its fundraising goals to push back the locusts. Everyone reading this article could make a real difference by reminding any donors you interact with in the coming weeks that the multiplying locust swarms will not self-isolate with the rest of us during our mass coronavirus shutdown. If they don’t donate more now, the next appeal for funds will be for much more in famine relief. 

But let’s not miss the most important lesson from the locusts, which are just a harbinger of the extensive impact climate change will have on the most vulnerable communities on the earth. We need to be channeling hundreds of millions of dollars from climate-change funding mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund to solving these scaling questions in ways that will last for generations. We need to build organizations that create the robust logistical systems and demonstrate the nimble decision-making necessary to solve scaling challenges as quickly as environments are changing. Ultimately, smallholders are the least responsible for climate change, but will be among the most impacted by it; we have a moral duty to be more ambitious in how we help them adapt.

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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