Willamette University

The Bug Life

By Andrew Faught

From an office building in Rome, Keith Cressman ’81 is the first defense against one of history’s greatest scourges.

With its ravages dating back to biblical times, the desert locust remains no small threat. The omnivorous bug’s habitat spans a 5,000-mile swath of the globe from West Africa to India, where swarms the size of Manhattan are considered average outbreaks. But the insects can gather by the billions — enough to blot out the sun — during plague years. Those swarms can stretch 40 miles end to end and wreak billions of dollars of damage on farmland.

“It does make you appreciate the power of nature,” says Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The Italy-based FAO works to safeguard developing nations against threats to their food supplies. Cressman is the only entomologist in the world providing forecasts for the desert locust, the most destructive of 12 migratory locust species.

He bases his predictions in part on rainfall and vegetation growth in the desert, “but the other 50 percent is a feeling,” Cressman says. “I’ve been doing this for a quarter of a century, so I have a pretty strong intuition. When I get the predictions correct and the locusts follow my hunches, it’s very satisfying.”

Forecasts are used by locust control centers in 24 countries, which Cressman visits throughout the year. Mehdi Ghaemian of Iran, a member of that country’s Plant Protection Organization, says Cressman called her in 2008 to warn of locusts heading toward Iran from Yemen. What was remarkable, Ghaemian adds, is that Cressman interrupted his Swiss ski vacation to sound the alarm. “We ordered the provinces to get ready for the locusts, and we had a successful control operation,” she says. Cressman credits courses he took at Willamette — politics, history, economics and world religion, in particular — as critical to his day-today duties: “All feed into my work in terms of traveling and working with people of different nationalities, cultures and religions.

“Willamette laid a very good foundation,” adds Cressman, a biology major who grew up in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “The value of a liberal arts education, compared to a very narrow education in a specific field, broadened my knowledge base. And certainly with the work I do now, one has to be a jack of all trades and know an awful lot of disciplines.”

His duties include hitting up international donors to help pay for extermination efforts in countries too poor to afford them. Officials try to stamp out the insects before they spawn a second generation, which can happen within six months. “That’s when the numbers can really increase,” he says. “You’ll have 250 times the number of locusts that you started with.

“It’s much like a brush fire in the forest. You can control that, but when it’s a wildfire it’s completely out of control. It’s the same with the desert locust. The situation can rapidly deteriorate and you get yourself in a period in which there are lots of locust swarms around and it can take several years and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them under control.”

Cressman’s career path took shape when he joined the Peace Corps immediately after graduating from Willamette. He was posted to a regional plant protection center in Tunisia, where he helped the center collect and catalog fruit flies that threatened olive trees.

He returned to the United States and, in 1987, earned a master’s degree in international agricultural development/plant protection from the University of California, Davis. Cressman longed to return overseas, and after landing a job with FAO, he was sent to Khartoum, Sudan, which fell siege to locusts within a month of his arrival.

He marvels at the insect’s resiliency over the millennia. Desert locusts are related to grasshoppers, but there is one critical distinction: Locusts undergo a personality change that causes them to swarm. They start as solitary insects but soon enter a “gregarious” stage, a survival mechanism that allows them to exist in some of the harshest climates in the world, including the Sahara Desert. “Grasshoppers never organize themselves into a coherent mass that moves and flies in the same direction,” Cressman says.

Control operations in various countries try to spray locusts in the “pregregarious” phase, when they are on the ground in a cluster perhaps no larger than a kitchen table. To do so officials in each country use an eLocust2 (similar to an iPad), developed by FAO a decade ago. The device transmits real-time locust data from remote locations.

The stakes are high. Average swarms can eat in one day the same tonnage as 42 million people do in the same period, Cressman says. Farmers, many of whom tend subsistence crops, try to scare them off by lighting fires or making loud noises, but to no avail. “A swarm can come into a family’s field and wipe it out in just a couple of hours,” he says. “It’s kind of like a lawnmower has gone through the place.”

Still, forecasts suggest that the desert locust hasn’t heard the last of Keith Cressman.

Andrew Faught is a freelance writer living in central California. He has written widely on issues and ideas of higher education.

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Keith Cressman ’81