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Crops in Africa under threat from armyworm pest

23 June 2017


Under attack: the newly hatched larvae of the fall armyworm often tunnel directly into maize before crawling to the ground to pupate

Under attack: the newly hatched larvae of the fall armyworm often tunnel directly into maize before crawling to the ground to pupate

AN INFESTATION of armyworms is threatening vital maize and other cereal crops in southern and eastern Africa, affecting food supplies in several countries that are already hit by drought and civil war, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has said.

The insects — which are the caterpillar of a nocturnal moth — are a serious global pest, and breed all year round in most tropical countries. They occur in millions, and “march” en masse from one region to another, hence their name.

In Malawi, more than 125,000 acres of crops are estimated to have been destroyed; in Zimbabwe, 9000 acres were devastated. They have been found in 20 countries as far apart as Angola and Kenya.

Their threat ranks alongside locusts, because they occur in such large numbers that individual farmers cannot control them on their own.

The effects have been worsened because the indigenous African armyworm has, for the first time, been joined by a related species, the fall armyworm — previously found only in Southern America — which is believed to be more resistant to pesticides. It was first recorded in Nigeria last year, probably arriving as eggs in imported maize, and spread rapidly through sub-Saharan Africa.

In Southern Africa, the invasion follows an El Niño-induced drought that scorched the region last year, leaving millions in need of food aid. This season, better rainfall had led to expectations of a good harvest. “The outbreak undermines what we expected would be a different story,” Joyce Mulila Mitti, a crop produc­tion and protection officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organ­iza­­tion, said. She was attending a conference in Nairobi to discuss how to counteract the infestation.

The armyworm can fly long dis­tances, leading UN experts to fear that it could reach Asia and the Me­­di­­terranean in the next few years. Some countries with confirmed out­breaks have faced bans on exporting their agricultural products.

The charity World Vision said that the infestation could re­­duce the Kenyan maize harvest by 16 million bags. The livelihoods-and-resilience project officer for World Vision Kenya, Bernard Owino, said: “We had faced similar pests in this region in the past, but this one soon proved to be a differ­ent monster altogether. It eats every­­thing from stalk, leaf, crop, and grain. It is spreading rapidly, and can destroy a wide range of crops.”

Farmers would be lucky to har­vest five bags per acre, he said, compared with an average yield of 18 bags. Most of the region’s small­holder farmers cannot afford the cost of pesticides, as they are unable to obtain loans. Some have resorted to applying ash to their crops, or washing their plants with laundry detergents, but with little success.

One Kenyan smallholder, George Onyango, said: “I doubt very much I will be able to afford to send my children to school this year, as I am helplessly watching my only source of income getting eaten before my very eyes. At this rate, we would ap­­peal to the government and the international community to already start looking into ways of aiding the millions in Kenya who may need food and other forms of humanit­arian aid in the near future.”

World Vision has been providing health and food aid across Kenya and East Africa, and has launched a humanitarian appeal. It estimates that the fall armyworm could cost the continent $3 billion in the coming year.

WORLD VISIONHandful: a scene at Naapong Food for Assets site, a food distribution centre in Turkana, Kenya

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