Fall armyworm invasion: Calling on our Scientists to fight

An Armyworm. Photo: John C. French Sr., Retired, Universities:Auburn, GA, Clemson and U of MO, Bugwood.org

Mrs Mushandu is not as happy as she was a month ago when her maize crop looked certain to yield high. Just last year, three quarters of her crop was destroyed by drought, and this year there is a new threat, a new pest never heard before in this area – the fall armyworm. Her situation is not unique to her area or Zimbabwe, but a crisis still unfolding in the whole Southern African region. Current information shows that the fall armyworm has affected Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, South Africa and Namibia, and is destroying maize, sorghum, and in fact any green crop they can find. Experts  estimate that the fall armyworm may even attack sugarcane once it is done with maize.  Elsewhere in Africa, the pest has been identified in Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe and Togo. In other countries it is a case of double trouble of the African armyworm and the Fall armyworm. Together, the worms are threating to reduce farmers’ livelihoods, without mercy.

The fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) is a relative of the African armyworm but also a newcomer from South America. It is the most destructive species pest of corn in Brazil attacking several parts of the plant: starting from leaves, going on to feed on feed on silks and subsequently penetrating the ears and attacking the grains. Through the extensive damage it also causes entry of other insects and pathogens that causes indirect damages to the grains. Besides maize the pest also affects wheat, sorghum, millet and rice. It is from this context that Mrs Mushandu is scared, not only for the summer crop but the winter crop as well. It seems like she is not the only one scared because FAO, in partnership with the Southern African Development Committee (SADC) and the International Red Locust Control Organization for Central and Southern Africa (IRLCO-CSA), organised an Emergency Regional Meeting of key stakeholders from 14 to 16 February 2017 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Among other things discussed were coordinated surveillance and expanding of diagnostics.

NEPAD SANBio commends the efforts of the regional and international bodies in being proactive to address this menace. However, we are also calling on our scientists to put their hands on the plough and generate data on the behaviour of the fall armyworm in our environment, to gain understanding of how it got to the region, and why it spreads so fast. Most importantly, we would like to call on research on methods to manage the pest, including biopesticides, natural extracts and understanding the efficacy of the currently used chemicals. According to the Department of Forestry and Fisheries of South Africa, no chemical was registered in the country to control the fall armyworm. Only when the local scientists have joined the fight can the war against Fall armyworm be won -- otherwise the battle seems  far from over.