Multi-pronged approach – key for effectively defeating fall armyworm in Africa
Tackling the menace of the tenacious fall armyworm pest and avoiding economic hardship for smallholders across Africa requires quick and coordinated action, a massive awareness campaign, scientific innovation and multi-institutional collaboration, indicated scientists attending the Stakeholders Consultation Meeting on the Fall Armyworm in Nairobi this week.
The fall armyworm, a recent interloper in Africa, widely prevalent in the Americas, attacks more than 80 different plant species, including maize, a major food staple in sub-Saharan Africa on which more than 200 million people depend.
“The truly frightening risk of the fall armyworm to food security in Africa must be recognized and tackled with a holistic integrated pest management program,” said Dr B.M. Prasanna, Director of the Global Maize Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the CGIAR Research Program on Maize. “We cannot eliminate the pest from Africa – now that it is here, it will stay, but we can provide support to farmers and provide options to manage their crops against the fall armyworm.”
The female fall armyworm can lay up to 1 000 eggs at a time and can produce multiple generations very quickly without pause in tropical environments. A conservative estimate indicates the loss of Africa’s maize due to the fall armyworm could cost the continent US$3 billion in the coming year, according to Dr Roger Day, sanitary and phytosanitary coordinator at the Center for Agricultural and Biosciences International (CABI).
The fall armyworm has been reported in all countries in southern Africa except Lesotho and the island States, and most of the countries in eastern Africa, including Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. It has also been reported in several countries in West and Central Africa, including Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe.
It is not yet clear how the pest got to the African continent or how it will adapt. In North America, cold winter temperatures halt its proliferation. This could explain why it has not been reported in Lesotho, which experiences colder winters than other mainland countries in Southern Africa.
“We just don’t know how far this could go,” said Joe DeVries, Vice President, Program Development and Innovation at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). “Fall armyworm is a very recently introduced pest in Africa and even the experts are unsure what its long-term impact will be. We agreed on the urgency of enabling national plant protection groups to work with farmers in controlling the level of damage on their farms. For the longer-term, though, only a truly collaborative effort between international and national agencies can provide a solution.”
Partners task FAO to coordinate fall armyworm control and management in Africa
Because of the transboundary nature of the fall armyworm infestation, the Nairobi meeting tasked the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to coordinate control and management interventions in Africa. According to Bukar Tijani, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa, the Organization has the capacity to take on the responsibility, which also fits in well with the current FAO programmes on the continent.
“FAO has prioritized building resilience of farmers and countries to prepare for, manage and recover from disasters, including pests and diseases. We are currently implementing a project, funded by the African Solidarity Trust Fund (ASTF) to strengthen controls on food safety, plant and animal pests and diseases to boost agricultural productivity and trade in Southern Africa. Information, experiences and lessons on management of transboundary plant pests from this project are being shared to inform interventions targeting the fall armyworm infestation on the rest of the continent”, he said.
Integrated Pest Management
Among options explored by various governments is to provide emergency pesticides to smallholder farmers. However, this costly option can deliver only mixed success due to the capacity of the fall armyworm to develop resistance to the chemicals and the fact that most small-scale farmers tend to use pesticides inappropriately.
“The first step to an effective Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy is to survey and monitor pest movements, assess yield loss levels and to compile data using remote sensing equipment at the field level,” said Gabriel Rugalema, FAO Representative in Kenya. “Accumulated data can contribute to establishing uniform cross-continent government standards for identifying and fighting the pest”, he added. “We need to act fast, failure is not an option,” Rugalema said, adding that adequate funding and taking a regional approach to controlling the fall armyworm are vital.
Scientists believe that the fall armyworm may have spread and proliferated on the continent due to warmer global temperatures over the past few years. They suspect the pest might have been introduced from Americas through trade in plant products, via warm ocean jet streams or by some other form of transportation. Scientists fear the fall armyworm could continue to multiply and become endemic across the continent. Professor Kenneth Wilson at Britain’s Lancaster University, who has extensive experience working on the African Armyworm, predicts the pest is likely to spread into the Middle East and eventually to Europe. The moth has been known to fly distances of up to 1 600 kilometers (1 000 miles) in 30 hours, according to experts.
Learning from Brazil
Scientists noted that Brazil, a tropical country that also battles the fall armyworm, could be a useful benchmark for understanding how to manage the pest in Africa, which typically does not have the natural control measure of freezing temperatures. “We need to develop and deploy in a fast-track manner improved drought-tolerant, disease-resistant hybrids adapted to Africa that are also resistant to the fall armyworm,” Prasanna said. “This is possible in the medium term of five to six years, while other effective integrated pest management options are scaled up and delivered to the farming communities.”
Despite the challenges, we are continuing to build resilience, increase agricultural productivity and regional coordination on agriculture, said Candace Buzzard, Deputy Mission Director at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Kenya and East Africa. “Resilience is the ability of communities, countries and systems to respond to shocks,” she said. Hopefully, by building more resilience within all these systems, which includes early warning, we can reduce the effects of these shocks and be more prepared for them.”
In order to develop and disseminate effective, more affordable and sustainable control options, research must be urgently undertaken to better understand the biology and ecology of the fall armyworm in the various African cropping systems and ecosystems and to identify its local potential enemies.