South and East Africa continue to grapple with an invasion of fall armyworm (FAW) invasion. This pest, never seen on the continent until 2016, is native to the US, and it remains unclear how it was first introduced to Africa. Prolonged dry spells and heavy rains are being blamed for the prevalence of the pest, as these conditions seem to provide a thriving breeding ground.
The pest is extremely destructive to staple crops, especially maize. Preliminary FAO assessments have shown that almost 400,000 hectares of crops have been affected in Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries to date. Maize is a significant food crop in Africa south of the Sahara, so these crop losses are creating a major food security challenge.
So far, there has been no single strategy to control the fall armyworm. The use of low-cost pesticides is a short-term solution; however, the FAW has already developed some resistance to pesticides in the US. The pest is thus difficult to control in this manner and is rapidly expanding its territory in Africa.
In May, during an SADC meeting, South Africa was requested to lead research efforts on fall armyworm, based on its technical capacity and experience with the pest. The Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (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 (IPM) strategies that combine biological and natural control. IPM emphasizes growing healthy crops, developing host plant resistance, and encouraging natural pest control, like the use of predatory insects or pheromone traps.
In Kenya, one of the countries hardest hit, policymakers have introduced temporary subsidies in an effort to reduce steadily increasing maize prices. Several field studies from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture have been conducted in the country to try to determine the extent of the damage; the results suggest that the country could see as much as a 100 percent loss of maize, rice, pasture, sorghum, millet, cotton, and certain vegetable crops unless urgent measures are taken. In Ghana, estimates place crop loss at 18,000 hectares, with costs totaling around $64 million.
Wilson Ronno, head of the crop production unit at the FAO’s Kenya office, says the arrival of fall armyworm has exacerbated the ongoing severe drought and the already rising food prices in East Africa. He is also emphasizing the need for a broad approach to controlling the pest, with strong cooperation across borders. According to Ronno, some estimates place the loss of African maize due to fall armyworm at US$4 billion if steps are not taken to stop the infestation.
By: Jenn Campus