The fall armyworm, unknown in Southern Africa until December 2016, is now among the pests that our grain producers have to contend with this season and perhaps more to come.
It is native to the Americas but was spotted in West Africa early last year before it spread to Zambia last December, then to Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa. Governments spent tens of millions in trying to contain it, but because it was discovered midway through the summer agricultural season, it still was able to destroy crops, particularly maize, on large swathes of land in the region, threatening food security.
They were successful in managing the pest but did not eradicate it, therefore it is now a resident, albeit unwelcome, of our region.
It is already wreaking havoc in Chipinge, Manicaland Province, where it has destroyed a maize crop at Musikavanhu Irrigation Scheme, resisting chemicals being applied to eliminate it.
“Our maize, which is at early vegetative stage has been affected by the invasion of the fall armyworm,” said a farmer, Mr Allen Dube.
“We tried our best to contain the outbreak, but the pest is now resisting chemicals. We used to combat the pest by spraying our crops using Carbaryl and other chemicals but this is not helping. Our extension officer told us to try other chemicals such as Lannatte but it is very expensive. It costs around $34 per litre which can only spray just a hectare.”
The worm is indeed very difficult to detect and contain, more difficult than its African cousin, the armyworm. It burrows into the centre of the host crop and into the cob itself destroying it completely. Brazil spends a staggering $600 million controlling it.
The fall armyworm grows to a length of about four centimetres. Apart from eating crops, it can be cannibalistic, eating competitors such as the African variety.
The adult has a brown or gray forewing, and a white hind wing. Males have more patterns and a distinct white spot on each of their forewings. They also develop dark spots with spines.
They eat up all plant material they encounter, like an army, leaving their victims on the ground. The pest completes its life cycle in 30 to 90 days depending on the season it grows. They mainly eat maize, but have a taste for sorghum, millet, rice, wheat and sugar cane as well.
To reduce its impact on our agriculture sector as we move into the 2017/18 farming season, we urge farmers to always scout their fields for the pest for earlier detection. If they detect the pest early enough, they can take measures to curb it before it spreads further and before the crop reaches its vegetative stage when the fall armyworm normally strikes.
Farmers also need to have budgets set aside for possible invasions by the pest. If they have money set aside, or appropriate pesticides in place, their response time is faster than in an event where they start looking for money to buy a pesticide when their crop is already under attack.
Since the fall armyworm is a notifiable pest, we implore the Government, through its structures on the ground and up, to put in place a robust early warning system and be always ready to hear reports of invasions and be ready to move in swiftly before the damage caused by the pest increases.
The Government also needs to intensify educational programmes at farm level. Farmers must be educated on how to protect their crops against possible invasion and damage arising from the fall armyworm. They must be educated on how to identify it, how it looks, the appropriate times to scout their fields and what measures they should take as soon as they spot it.
We note that since the first outbreak last agricultural season, the Government has been working with organisations like the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and others. This integrated approach is helpful because it facilitates exchange of ideas and experiences and sharing of the financial and resources burden to respond to the fall armyworm whenever outbreaks are reported.
FAO will from tomorrow hold a conference in South Africa to discuss the fall armyworm. We look forward to participation by governments and farmers from southern African countries as well as donors, scientists and other relevant stakeholders.
“The key outputs of the meeting will be a situation update of the fall armyworm infestation in the region, including response actions, a regional preparedness plan for the 2017/18 production season, key messages on fall armyworm management for farmers and policy issues that will inform the response in the short, medium and long-term,” said FAO in a statement yesterday.
CIMMYT is pooling its germplasm resources, together with other modern breeding platforms to produce maize varieties that are tolerant to fall armyworm.
This is a continuation of an earlier contribution by the same organisation to reduce the effects of Maize Lethal Necrosis that wreaked havoc in eastern Africa.
However, our farmers have to recognise that such breeding initiatives typically take time for results to show in their fields.
We look forward to more of these collaborations so that our lifeline agriculture sector and the economy at large are not threatened by the pest.