A Scientist Circles Back to the Farm

Dr. Arianne Cease and friend                           ©2018 Arizona State University, used with permission

Last month’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco offered a rich cornucopia of affiliate events across the Bay Area that were open to the public. I was fortunate to experience eight events over the course of the week, each one enlightening and hope-inducing.

One thought provoking discussion I attended was Women in Climate Action Leadership at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito, CA, co-sponsored by the church, The Asia Foundation, and the Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

There are ample reasons why women are uniquely qualified to lead when it comes to climate change adaptation. Panelists here spoke of the critical role women in developing nations play in the sourcing of food, fuel and clean water for their families, making them ideal leaders in the effort to conserve resources and practice adaptation. Also true is that cultural and societal norms often work against women’s ability to ‘own’ leadership; for example basic education for girls is poor or nonexistent in many such populations.

Amanda Ellis was one of the panelists; she’s the Executive Director of the Hawaii and Asia-Pacific program at the Wrigley Institute. Her energy and determination to spark change in this arena was inspiring, and one example she mentioned caught my attention. She spoke of a colleague using science-based education to help people in the global south manage devastating locust plagues.

After the event I approached Ellis because my brain was enthusiastically pinging, “Blog piece!” regarding her story nugget. Just like that, she whipped out her phone and emailed the colleague of whom she spoke, Dr. Arianne Cease, Founding Director of the Global Locust Initiative at the Wrigley Institute. By the next morning, Cease had replied that she’d be happy to have me write about her work.

Cease grew up on a farm in southern Oregon, and was determined to trade farm life for city living. “I wanted to see the world, and college was my ticket,” she said in an ASU KED talk earlier this year. So after completing her BS in zoology and chemistry at Oregon State University, she joined the Peace Corps as a sustainable agroforestry extension agent in a small African farming community in Senegal.

Answering a Question, and Finding a Passion

It was there she experienced a phenomenon that changed her life trajectory. During dry season there was a sudden influx of tree locusts that descended as if from nowhere to set upon anything edible – crops, trees, fences – and proceed to decimate them. The villagers were powerless to stop the carnage.

“All locusts are grasshoppers, but not all grasshoppers are locusts. Locusts are grasshoppers that, when exposed to specific environmental cues, will form mass migrations and become a continental-level challenge.”  – Dr. Arianne Cease

The immediate result when this occurs is, predictably, crop loss that devastates the local economy. More subtle, but no less impactful, is the long-term generational damage to livelihoods and quality of life. Studies have shown that children born during years in which their village experiences a locust plague are far less likely to ever start school than children born during years without one. Not delayed; never. “The effect was greatest for young women,” Cease noted in the KED talk.

Observing the plague and its outcome set Cease to wondering what conditions were present when one occurred, and if they could be limited or prevented entirely. In search of the answers, she accepted a fellowship to study Mongolian locusts in China.

Cease figured that the primary cause of swarms was environmental, but soon realized there was a critical human element involved. The study team observed that locusts only swarmed on land which was heavily grazed by livestock. Noting that the locusts ignored lush adjacent parcels, they took their investigation to the nutrient level and discovered something very interesting.

In general herbivores – livestock, in this case – prefer high-nitrogen grasses; however, over-grazing results in plants low in nitrogen. When land is heavily and continuously grazed its topsoil erodes and soil nitrogen content declines, meaning plants take up less nitrogen from the soil. Because most nitrogen in plants, particularly in grasses, is found in the form of protein, this results in low-protein grasses. Of course, this isn’t nutritionally optimal for the livestock eating it.

Ah, but the Mongolian locusts…..it turns out they thrived on the low protein, high carbohydrate grass in such fields. Cease quips that “feasting on over-grazed fields was like eating a donut diet for the locusts.” Albeit one that worked out for them nutritionally, that is. Perhaps too well, because locusts eating this diet were also more likely to migrate, i.e. more over-grazed fields meant increased migratory swarms.

Subsequent studies led by Cease in Australia, Senegal, Argentina and Bolivia determined that different species of locusts all shared a preference for the ‘donut diet’, with the same results.

During a year with frequent plagues, locusts can:

  • Populate more than 20% of the planet’s land surface
  • Impact over 60 countries
  • Negatively affect the livelihood of 1 out of 10 people

A Sustainability-Based Approach   

Understanding this process was only the beginning, because it led to questions around how best to apply sustainability practices to the newly understood interactions among humans, plants and insects. Recognizing that a systems approach was necessary, Cease recruited a team of natural and social scientists to collaborate on a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). She brought together researchers in biology, economics and social science to work with regional stakeholders such as farmers and pest management agencies to better understand the system and develop sustainable solutions.

Senegal collaborator meeting
A meeting at Senegal’s Plant Protection Directorate (DPV) phytosanitary station in Nganda with collaborators from the DPV, Nganda farmers, and ASU researchers.          Source: Dr. Arianne Cease

The NSF project opened a pathway for the Global Locust Initiative (GLI). Its stated mission is to ‘promote interdisciplinary locust research and management to improve the well-being of farming communities and global food system sustainability.’ Of GLI’s approach, Cease says, “We are one large team. When we think about addressing the complex challenge of locust plagues, this includes aspects such as farmer livelihoods and food security in rural communities, and we try our best to involve all relevant stakeholders, from researchers to communities most affected by crop pests. By doing that we hope to best understand the far-reaching impacts of proposed solutions.”

I asked Cease how GLI integrates education into its work in the global south. The Institute was recently funded by USAID for a project in Senegal that includes crop pest identification training, monitoring and sustainable management. Typically programs for migratory crop pests are focused necessarily at high levels – regional, national or international – but this one is local.

“This project is focused on community empowerment, working directly with farmers and women’s groups, and connecting them with the regional and the national crop protection directorate,” she explains. “The team will be working with women’s groups to enact an early warning system involving light traps that attract adult locusts and grasshoppers. Ultimately, decreasing pest impacts on crops and increasing yield will increase household resources and the capacity to send children, particularly young women, to school.”

GLI also creates opportunities for knowledge sharing among its international members, so that those seeking information have an avenue for finding it via cross-sectoral or interdisciplinary events hosted by the Institute.

It seems to me that it can only be beneficial to give the people who live in a community a meaningful stake in protecting and preserving their welfare, and the tools with which to succeed. It would be hopeful indeed if GLI’s approach serves as proof of concept for other regions and organizations going forward. I’m excited to follow Arianne Cease’s progress as she continues her leadership in this truly important work!

On a personal note I’d like to thank Amanda Ellis and Arianne Cease, two busy women doing incredibly important work, for their sincere warmth and generosity. This piece wouldn’t have been possible without their assistance.

Senegal field work_cropped
Collecting soil, plants, and grasshoppers to determine the relationships among agricultural practices, soil quality, plant nutrients, and grasshopper and locust populations. Team members are from Senegal’s Plant Protection Directorate, McGill University, and ASU.                                             Source: Dr. Arianne Cease


Author: paulaonpoint

I live in Oakland, CA and am a native of Trenton, NJ. I love everything about the ocean, especially friendly whales. I'm a warrior in the fight to protect and restore Planet Earth. And I'm a cat person, as Ziggy and ZuZu can attest.

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