Southern Africa can’t catch a break: Armyworm destroys crops

Armyworm (Credit: Larah McElroy/flickr)

The return of rain following the end of El Niño should be good news for farmers in Southern Africa. But a pest from the Americas is ruining everything.

Countries recovering from the two-year long drought that caused widespread food insecurity now face a rapidly spreading crop killer. The invasive fall armyworm is destroying maize across the region and spreading quickly from country to country serving a “blow to prospects of recovery” for the region, says the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

There is preliminary evidence of the armyworm in Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The fact that it came from the Americas and is spreading throughout the region makes it likely that it will travel to Asia and the Mediterranean, FAO officials warned.

“This invasive species is now a serious pest spreading quickly in tropical Africa and with the potential to spread to Asia,” Matthew Cock, chief scientist for the Center for Agriculture and Biosciences International, said in a statement. “Urgent action will be needed to prevent devastating losses to crops and farmers’ livelihoods.”

Zambia reported more than 129,000 hectares affected by the pest and Malawi says 5,471 hectares are damaged. The latest report from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network projects weak crop yields for affected areas due to the slow response of governments to the problem. Crisis food insecurity levels are measured in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho. The network warned that parts of those countries could reach emergency levels if food aid does not reach people in need and crops fail.

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The fall armyworm is a caterpillar that targets maize, sorghum, soybeans, groundnuts and potatoes – many of the leading crops for the region. It is from the Americas and the “fall” in its name signifies the season when it generally arrives in the United States. Researchers say it was likely transported to African inadvertently via a cross-continental flight.

The region already deals with a native armyworm, but the invasive cousin is harder for farmers to both detect and eradicate. Its presence in Ghana and spread in southern Africa indicate it will likely reach more parts of the continent in the coming years.

“It may take several years to identify and test a suitable biological control for this pest in Africa so urgent work is needed right now,” said Cock. “In the meantime, we will need to support national programs to encourage the best types of pest control, and not resort to indiscriminate use of insecticides which are harmful to the environment and have limited success.”

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As many as 50 million people were in need of assistance at the height of the drought in early 2016. The lean season for the region started in November and ends with the March/April harvest. Some 16 million people need emergency humanitarian assistance, according to the World Food Program. To help people waiting for the next harvest, the agency assisted nearly 5 million people in September and scaled up to reach 13 million by January.

Countries are already collaborating on how to control fall armyworms. Zimbabwe will host an emergency meeting led by the FAO next week. It will bring together regional leaders to coordinate a response to the pest and eventually eradicate it. And they will discuss the other threats that may soon affect the region.

“Southern Africa is currently facing serious threats posed by diverse transboundary pests and diseases, including the varied armyworms, locusts, the tomato leaf minor and maize lethal necrosis disease. The Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, H5N8 strain, that has been confirmed to be in Uganda and possibly Rwanda too, is likely to spread southwards, along the wild bird migration routes,” David Phiri of the FAO, said in a statement.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.