Pests Threatening Food Security

An emergency meeting this week in Harare, Zimbabwe will focus on the spread of the fall armyworm caterpillar throughout much of southern Africa. Experts from 13 countries will join FAO, the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI), the Southern African Development Committee (SADC), and the International Red Locust Control Organization for Central and Southern Africa (IRLCO-CSA) to discuss how the pest can be stopped in an environmentally sustainable way.

Fall armyworm, native to the Americas, is new to the African continent, first appearing in 2016. The pest attacks plants’ growing points and has been particularly devastating to the region’s maize crop. Other important staple crops, including wheat, sorghum, sugarcane, soybean, alfalfa, and millet, can also be damaged. According to FAO, fall armyworm can cause crop losses of up to 73 percent. This poses a serious food security threat to the region, where staple crops like maize make up a significant portion of people’s diets.

FAO has stated that reports of possible armyworm infestation have come from Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia, while Zimbabwe has confirmed the presence of the pest. In addition, CABI has positively identified the pest in Ghana, and CABI scientists expect armyworm to continue to spread rapidly throughout the continent.

Controlling the pest will pose a challenge. Chemical pesticides can be effective, but the pest has developed some resistance to pesticides in its native Americas; thus it is difficult to control with just a single type of pesticide. The widespread use of chemical pesticides also raises concerns about environmental damage and further loss of agricultural productivity down the road. Thus, this week’s meeting will center on how the infestation can be managed more sustainably. CABI plans to use the lessons learned from farmers in the Americas to train agricultural extension workers throughout Africa; these extension services will educate African farmers on integrated pest management strategies that combine biological and natural control.

Strengthening surveillance and emergency responses across borders will also be a major focus of this week’s meeting in Harare. According to David Phiri, FAO’s Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa, the region is currently facing serious threats from a variety of transboundary pests and diseases; as such, coordinated action across countries is needed to expand national and regional capacity to identify, diagnose, and respond to these threats.  

Southern Africa is already facing food security concerns due to two consecutive years of El Nino-induced drought. FAO estimates that poor weather has reduced the region’s food availability by 15 percent and resulted in a cereal deficit of 9 million tonnes.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:CE/ECHO/Anna Chudolinska