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The locust menace that the country has been grappling with for a while now is a thing of common knowledge. The complexity of the situation is compounded by the fact that the government seems to be at its wits end as far as coming up with a solution is concerned. The capacity of the locusts to destroy vegetation is unparalleled.

For communities that directly depend on agricultural produce for sustenance, the risk of imminent starvation is a reality. On a large enough scale, this situation can easily lead to a complete breakdown of the country’s food systems, with devastating consequences on the economy. It does not help to recollect that in the past few years, the agricultural sector has been hopping from the pit to an ever-deeper one. For instance, we have barely recovered from the recent fall armyworm scourge, yet here we are confronted with a plague of biblical proportions.

However, one cannot keep from wondering just how this crisis caught us flatfooted. I suggest that the elephant in the room is not the locust invasion per se. Rather, this is just the unmasking of the soft underbelly of a flawed agricultural system. As a matter of fact, the likelihood of there being an invasion was known as far back as six months ago. At that time, the locust populations were building up in Yemen and the surrounding regions.

A few months later, a combination of factors including uncharacteristically heavy rainfall coupled with inadequate control measures in Yemen due to political instability, guaranteed definite migration of the locusts to the Horn of Africa and subsequently to Kenya. We should have seen this coming from a long way off.

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This underscores the necessity of ensuring all components of the agricultural sector are working optimally. Ideally, in the absence of a crisis, three broad sets of activities should characterise the operations of the sector. First, breeding efforts need to be in place to ensure a steady and stable supply of elite breeding materials for farmers. These include high yielding crop varieties as well optimally productive animals. Secondly, there needs for proper and complete value chains that ensure maximum profitability for farmers while guaranteeing the quality and affordability of produce to consumers.

There is need for investment in forward-looking, defensive research that is aimed at addressing anticipated future challenges. This is informed by the well-known fact that agricultural productivity is perpetually at risk of either abiotic or biotic challenges.

Using crops as an example, abiotic challenges refer to stresses not caused by living organisms, for example drought, temperature extremes, poor soils and presence of toxic compounds such as salts in soil. Biotic challenges on the other hand result from living organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi that cause diseases, as well as insects and worms that defoliate crops. These threats are always lurking around the corner. It is safe to guarantee that even after the locust invasion has been contained another scourge will emerge for us to contend with.

This means that if we insist on maintaining a reactive stance undergirded by blind faith and the hope that all will be well, we are setting ourselves up for failure. It is imperative that well-reasoned, proactive measures be put in place to safeguard our agricultural systems. I am willing to wager that agriculture is the most critical component of our country’s economy. So, while we urgently seek to resolve the locust predicament, perhaps we should take a step back, frame the problem in its proper context and come up with appropriate long term solutions that will safeguard our agricultural sector and economy.

- The writer works in a breeding and genetics lab at the University of Georgia, USA. [email protected]

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