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Stopping the Menace of the Fall Armyworm

By Esther Ngumbi

All over Africa, countries are battling fall armyworms. These crop-eating larval caterpillars are ravaging food supplies and posing major geopolitical challenges on the continent. Because the worms feed on over 80 plant species and develop into moths that can fly long distances, combating them requires coordinated, multi-pronged efforts.

Since 2016, fall armyworms have invaded over 20 African countries including Kenya, Ghana, and Ethiopia; damaged over 1.5 million hectares of land; and destroyed staple crops like corn, sorghum, and pasture grasses. As a result, many countries are expected to suffer from food insecurity both this year and next. Some farmers have attempted to use chemical pesticides to fight the worms, but they’ve proven ineffective. Unless the insects are systematically stopped, problems will only intensify.

Many research institutions and African countries, as well as the African Union and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have proposed and implemented sustainable control measures to contain outbreaks and stop them from spreading further. The FAO, for instance, has convened meetings in Harare, Nairobi, and Accra, bringing together government officials, scientists who specialize in fall armyworms, and representatives from Africa’s premier research institutions to formulate a region-wide framework for managing the infestation.

On the country level, Ghana has set up a national taskforce to monitor and detect early attacks on farms; to educate farmers about the pest; and to undertake research aimed at finding short- and long-term solutions, such as identifying appropriate pesticides and biological means of control. Kenya has also committed around $291,000 (SH 300 million) to fighting the spread of fall armyworms, and to awareness campaigns aimed at informing farmers about the rapidly spreading pest. In Ethiopia, the government has pledged just under $2 million (45 million birr) to the problem.

Efforts are underway to curb this flying menace, but they can go further.

First and foremost, African countries can learn to effectively manage the fall armyworm from North and South American countries that that have gone through similar invasions. Brazil, for example, has been successfully dealing with the pest for many years using biological control agents and resistant maize varieties.

Informational exchanges between these regions are already starting to happen. During the FAO meetings, experts from Brazil and the United States were invited to join African researchers and share some of the practices that have worked best in their own countries. The FAO should continue to reach out to experts and broaden this network. Similarly, the Center for Agriculture and BioScience International (CABI) in Wallingford, England, is planning to use lessons gleaned from Brazilian farmers to train African agricultural extension workers. These farmers, in turn, are expected to pass on the lessons to other African farmers.

Second, academic studies should also help African countries in their quest to find sustainable means of controlling the pests. For example, recent research from Auburn University, where I work, has shown that when applied as seed treatment, beneficial soil microbes can alter how and when fall armyworms lay eggs. This shows that microbial pesticides can be employed to fight fall armyworm invasions. African researchers should follow this lead, and look for similar solutions.

Third, countries need to continue to strengthen their national surveillance and forecasting capabilities, and coordinate their strategies for curbing the spread and impact of this destructive pest. At the same time, they need to come up with innovative ways of disseminating information about available and effective solutions.

Finally, as farmers prepare for the next planting season, there are simple practices that they can implement to reduce the impact of the fall armyworm. These include planting early to allow crops to mature before pest populations build up, planting diverse crops, and inter-cropping maize with plants like sunflowers and beans, which makes it harder for the armyworms to target the main host crop.

Of course, as countries rush to implement preventative measures and solutions, it is important to keep farmers in mind. Can farmers afford these solutions? Do they know enough about suggested management practices and how to implement them on their farms?

Battling the fall armyworm in Africa requires the participation and collaboration of all affected countries. At the same time, governments must continue to work with researchers to pursue lasting solutions, and help millions of people avoid food insecurity.

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Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama. She serves as a 2017 Clinton Global University (CGI U) Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 Food Security New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

[Photo courtesy of USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab]

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