Climate change to blame for mysterious fungi, fall armyworm outbreak

By Lazarus Sauti

FARMERS IN Southern Africa, still smarting from an El Nino-induced drought, are battling a new calamity, this time in the form of the fall armyworm, which invaded farms in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Reports suggest that the alien armyworm munched some 2,000 hectares of maize fields in Malawi and infested 124,000 hectares of maize fields in Zambia.

In Zimbabwe, the fall armyworm attacked 10 farming provinces, heightening fears of food shortages in the country.

Southern Africa should be worried because the spread capacity of this strange armyworm is very high, says David Phiri of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

He adds that if not controlled, the fall armyworm can have devastating effects on food security.

In the first report of outbreaks of the fall armyworm in West and Central Africa, entomologist, Georg Goergen, of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), also says the fall armyworm is voracious and, given its polyphagous nature, it is expected that its accidental introduction in the African continent will constitute a lasting threat to several important crops such as maize, millet, sorghum, rice, wheat and sugar cane.

“Feeding damage is also observed on other major agricultural crops such as cowpea, groundnut, potato, soyabean and cotton,” he adds.

The fall armyworm is not the only threat to food security in Zimbabwe as a mysterious black fungi epidemic is also destroying baobab trees in dryer parts of Chimanimani, Chipinge and Buhera.

The tree, considered to be sacred in the country, is very useful as locals use it for its nutritious fruits, edible leaves as well as beautiful flowers.

“Porridge made from mauyu (baobab fruits) is tasty as well as nutritious. It has saved us from dying, especially in these times of drought,” says a Buhera villager, Noreen Chimwaza. “Sadly, a mysterious disease is wiping baobab trees. The trees are turning black before they die, exposing us to acute food shortages.”

Paul Mupira of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe acknowledges the presence of the mysterious disease and depicts the situation as dire.

But what is causing the outbreak of the fall armyworm that is chewing important crops such as maize in Zimbabwe and other regional countries, as well as the mysterious black fungi that is wiping away baobab trees in dryer parts of Chimanimani, Chipinge and Buhera?

Agricultural researcher, Ronald Chimunda, blames climate change for causing the 2015/16 drought, which in turn led to the outbreak of black fungi that is destroying baobab trees, as well as the fall armyworm that is chewing maize crops in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.

“Climate change, the biggest threat we are facing today, is heavily to blame for the outbreak of the fall armyworm. This is so because the spread of the fall armyworm is influenced by weather conditions,” he says.

Goergen agreed that, “Severe outbreaks of fall armyworm usually coincide with the onset of the wet season, especially when the new cropping season follows a long period of drought.”

Climate change and human development, adds environmentalist, Nomatter Mapfumo, caused drought in dryer parts of the country and chances are very high that this stressed baobab trees, reducing their abilities to withstand the mysterious black fungi that is obliterating them.

As for environmentalist, Peace Sibanda, the increase in pests linked to climate change is no longer a futuristic protrusion, but a genuine case that requires adequate investments in research and development if the country is to curb agricultural and environmental problems caused by climate change.

“Although recognising the threats of fungi that is destroying baobab trees as well as the fall armyworm that is making farmers to ‘sweat’ all the time can work towards wonders in saving our environment and crops respectively, adequate research is required to minimise all problems caused by climate change,” he sums up.

January 2017
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