A new study led by a group of universities including Yale seeks to integrate ecology and economics to prevent locusts from ravaging crops that are crucial for livestock and humans alike.

The team from Yale, Arizona State, McGill and Colorado State University has begun to analyze the ecological, social and economic factors driving locust outbreaks in Senegal, China and Australia. The team hopes to combine biological and social science techniques to help the local and institutional farming communities prevent future outbreaks, said Yale School of Forestry professor and study researcher Eli Fenichel.

“Overall, we want to connect ecological dynamics to people who respond to locust outbreaks and build models of the systems of the locust outbreaks as well as models of how people respond,” he said.

Locust outbreaks often result from the overgrazing of livestock populations because the animal activity strips the land of nitrogen, lead researcher and Arizona State University post-doctoral fellow Arianne Cease said. Locusts prefer this low-nitrogen environment, and in each of the three countries, the team will identify why overgrazing occurs and how to prevent it in the future.

The research team selected Senegal, China and Australia because they differ in property right structures, Fenichel said. Senegal does not enforce property rights for agricultural land, Australia maintains some property rights for individuals, and the Chinese government enforces stronger property rights. By studying these diverse ownership models, Fenichel said the findings would be readily applicable to a range of nations.

“When no one has rights to the land, everyone tries to overuse the resources before they are gone,” Fenichel said. “Then, when the locusts come, [fewer] resources are available for livestock and then prices end up going up on the market which makes the herders want to sell and graze more.”

Fenichel said he is the only person working on the project at Yale, but he hopes to include students in the study going forward.

A major component of the study is encouraging countries to explore implementing more stringent property rights. This idea has some inspiration in recent worldwide practices of giving property rights to fisheries to create a safer and more valuable fishing industry, Fenichel said.

The researchers will explore various types of managerial, social and economic approaches that best suit each community, McGill professor and study researcher Joleen Hadrich said.

“We strive to be respectful to each of the cultures we are analyzing and will in no way force property rights upon anyone,” she said.

The team is now considering studying Madagascar because of the recent devastating locust outbreaks that destroyed livestock and crops, Cease said.

In 2004, Senegal experienced the largest desert locust plague since 1989.