Fall armyworm threatens livelihoods in Africa

By Sifelani Tsiko

African plant and animal disease experts held a crisis meeting in Harare last week on the spiraling fall armyworm outbreak which is destroying maize crops and posing a major threat to food security and agricultural trade in east, central and southern Africa.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation together with the Zimbabwean government, SADC and the International Red Locust Control Organisation for Central and Southern Africa (IRLCO – CSA)  convened the regional technical meeting on transboundary crop pests and animal diseases.

This important meeting was convened to discuss appropriate responses to emerging transboundary crop pests and diseases that are threatening crop and livestock production.

Great emphasis was placed on how to stop the spread of the fall armyworm, a caterpillar that has damaged staple crops in what experts say are the ‘frontline’ states – Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. South Africa has also reported a few incidents while Ghana in West Africa has been affected too. Until 2016, the fall armyworm, was largely restricted to the Americas. In Brazil, where the fall armyworm is endemic, it has been estimated to cost US$600 million a year to control. Africa has been facing outbreaks of the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) in the last few years which is different from the African armyworm (Spodoptera exempta).

This pest is new to the region and has its origin in the Americas.

“The pest has damaged maize in a number of countries in the region and appears to be moving into the region in a north to south trajectory,” said Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) southern Africa coordinator David Phiri.

“What is of particular concern is that the pest has affected countries that are the main producers of maize, a key staple for most of southern Africa. The governments of affected countries are rightly concerned about the danger posed to agriculture and food security by these new caterpillars.” Experts say the fall armyworm has potential to cause a serious food security problem throughout much of east, central and southern Africa.

Ken Wilson, a professor of ecology at Lancaster University in Britain, told plant and livestock disease experts at the meeting that 10 African countries were affected by the fall armyworm infestation damaging some 124,000 hectares (ha) of crop land between 2016 and February 2017.

He cited IRLCO-CSA, USAID and the media as sources of the data. Countries affected included Nigeria, Benin, Togo, São Tomé and Princípe, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa.

“There remains so many unanswered questions on the fall armyworm,” said Prof Wilson. “Where did the fall armyworm come from? How does its life-cycle differ from that of the African armyworm? Will it spread and will it persist long-term? How do we control it?

“If it persists, the consequences for Africa will be severe. A regional strategy for this new invasive pest is urgently required. Sharing of information and experiences is critical. We need to do this very well at national, regional and international level.”

According to experts, the fall armyworm has caused widespread damage in all of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces and the entire southern African region.

Cereal deficits affected the entire region last year as a serious drought ravaged southern Africa. In Zambia, the armyworm is reported to have affected 124,000ha of maize while in Malawi more than 2,000ha of the maize crop was hit by an outbreak of the voracious armyworms. Outbreaks have also been reported in the volatile Buzi and Gorongoza regions in Mozambique.

The voracious pest devours maize and 80 other different types of crops and plants.

Plant experts say in order to combat the spread of the armyworm, the Zimbabwe government requires to strengthen monitoring and surveillance including eliciting the support of community-based armyworm forecasting units in various parts of the country.

They say early detection is key to sound management of the pest. IRLCO-CSA director, Moses Okhoba, hailed the Zambian government for its strong response in the fight against the fall armyworm and the African red locust, which were threatening SADC’s third major maize producer. The Zambian government deployed its air force in control efforts and in addition, has budgeted more than US$400,000 to save its maize crop from damage.

Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa have also effected control measures. Control measures have been impossible in Mozambique due to security reasons in the volatile Buzi and Gorongoza region.

Namibia, Botswana and a few other southern African countries have also been on high alert.

Apart from the fall armyworm and the African armyworm, the continent also faces threats from a range of transboundary crop and livestock pests and diseases.

The tomato leaf miner (Tuta absoluta) has caused serious losses and disrupted tomato trade between some countries in the region.

The IRLCO-CSA also warned that the region faces a potential locust outbreak following observed increases in the population of the pest in its traditional breeding areas in Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The main locust types include the brown locust, African migratory locust, Malagasy migratory locust and the red locust. Zambia spent US$3 million using aerial sprays to combat the pest (fall armyworm) while Brazil, the third largest maize producer globally,  spends US$600 million a year to control the fall armyworm.

In Malawi, the locust destroyed 405ha in under two days at a sugar plantation and the firm spent eight million kwacha (US$11,040) in control efforts. This pushed up cost to US$63/ha to cover plane hire and chemicals. Tomato leaf miner has seen prices of tomatoes rising in Botswana, while food prices due to crop pest attacks increased three-fold in Tanzania, 15-fold in Nigeria and forced a Dangote food-processing plant to shut down.

In the livestock sector, Phiri said, the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N8, which has been reported in many areas of the world, mostly in the Northern hemisphere, has broken out in Uganda, killing thousands of migratory wild birds and domestic poultry.

“This transboundary disease poses a serious threat to the poultry industry – a sector upon which millions of people, particularly in rural areas, depend for their livelihood and food and nutrition security,” UN FAO official said.

“Southern Africa is at high risk of the disease due to its position along the migratory pathways of wild birds and the ongoing rainy season provides wetlands around which migratory birds tend to congregate.”

The FAO Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD) and EMPRES who have been working with governments and other partners to create awareness and build capacities to respond and to prepare to respond to the disease in the event of an outbreak.

Most SADC countries have repeatedly been attacked by outbreaks such as foot-and-mouth disease and other animal diseases, which threaten livelihoods, food security and public health.

Experts say these diseases have negatively impacted on livestock production and market access and cost governments millions of dollars in control efforts. According to a 1997 study by plant and crop experts, infestation during the mid to late whorl stage of maize development caused yield losses of up to between 15 -73 percent when 55 percent of the plants were infested with the fall armyworm.

FAO estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of global crop yields are reduced each year due to the damage wrought by plant pests and diseases.

Experts to the meeting that ran from February 14 to16, were drawn from 13 African countries. They called for a swift and coordinated response to defeat the crop pests and animal disease that were wreaking havoc on the continent.

“The insects are not going to wait for us to look for resources,” said Okhoba. “They won’t stop, we have to act quickly to prioritise control and prevention.” – Zimpapers Syndication

February 2017
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