Caterpillars threaten food security

22 February 2017 | Agriculture

Armyworm invasion a huge concern

Namibia’s food security is under threat from an outbreak of previously unknown fall armyworm that is devastating crops in the north-central and north-eastern parts of the country.

The maize and mahangu crops are traditional staple foods in this area.

Although the more common African armyworm occurs regularly in Namibia, farmers say the devastation caused by this year’s outbreak is unprecedented.

Ewi lyaNooli has been following media reports since the outbreak was confirmed by the by Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry and also conducted a number interviews with affected farmers.

The caterpillars were identified as the fall armyworm - which comes from the Americas, bollworm and maize stalk borer. Although an outbreak has not been confirmed yet, the usual African armyworm has been spotted too.

When the ministry announced the outbreak it said the entomologists that were deployed had observed serious damage caused by the fall armyworms, which feed on leaves, while bollworms eat leaves and the developing cobs. The stalk borer is a common pest but does not cause serious damage, unlike the two others.

The caterpillars occurred after good rains, dashing hopes of a bumper harvest following several drought years.

A shortfall in local cereal production will necessitate increased maize imports. But because large parts of Southern Africa are threatened by the armyworm outbreak, there are fears that maize will have to be imported from further afield, raising the price significantly.

Some farmers accuse the government of not taking the outbreak seriously enough. They say the agriculture ministry seems to think that the situation will resolve itself, which they feel is not the case.

In an interview with Etunda Irrigation Scheme manager Albertus Viljoen he talked about the challenges the caterpillars are posing and how they are keeping their fingers crossed that the pests will disappear soon.

Viljoen explained that weather conditions are the reason for the outbreak.

The moths that lay the eggs look for suitable green places where the eggs can hatch and the caterpillars will have food to eat.

“We are not sharing the moths with nature as there is no food out there for them to lay their eggs, which results in the moths targeting the nice, green crops of farmers. This has been the result of the drought situation,” Viljoen said.

Viljoen said although they tried to spray pesticides, they are only equipped with contact pesticide which only works when it comes in contact with the caterpillar.

“Even if you spray, the chances of the pesticides being effective are very slim as the worms are inside the plants and the pesticides don’t have that much impact,” he said.

Regarding this year’s maize production, Viljoen said this month they harvested about 30 hectares, which had been expected to yield 180 to 200 tons of maize. But because of the caterpillars, they ended up with only 70 tons and the quality of the grain is poor.

Viljoen agreed that the outbreak was not getting the necessary attention. The situation is a national crisis and therefore it should concern all stakeholders.

“It seems like the issue is not taken seriously. The end result will be very bad for the country,” he said.

He said experts need to be brought on board to assess the situation because those on the ground are not well equipped or do not have the necessary knowledge about fighting fall armyworm.

Elsewhere, scientists are calling for urgent action to halt the spread of the pest that is destroying maize crops and spreading rapidly across Africa.

The fall armyworm poses a major threat to food security and agricultural trade, warns the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (Cabi).

It says farmers' livelihoods are at risk as the non-native insect threatens to reach Asia and the Mediterranean.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation plans emergency talks on the issue.

The fall armyworm is native to North and South America and was identified for the first time in Africa last year.

Cabi chief scientist Dr Matthew Cock said: "This invasive species is now a serious pest spreading quickly in tropical Africa and with the potential to spread to Asia.

"Urgent action will be needed to prevent devastating losses to crops and farmers' livelihoods."

Scientists think the caterpillar or its eggs may have reached the continent through imported produce.

Once established in an area, the adult moths can fly large distances and spread rapidly.

Dr Jayne Crozier, of Cabi, said the fall armyworm's presence had now been confirmed in West Africa and was thought to be present in the south and east of the continent, many parts of which rely on maize for their staple diet.

"It's possibly been there for some time and it's causing a lot of damage now," she told BBC News.

"The recent discovery of fall armyworm in Africa will be a huge threat to food security and also to trade in the region."

The FAO held an emergency meeting in Harare last week to decide emergency responses to the fall armyworm threat.

It says the pest has been confirmed in Zimbabwe and preliminary reports suggest it may also be present in Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

An investigation by Cabi has found that the fall armyworm is established in Ghana.

Experts at Cabi say it could take several years to develop effective methods to control the pest.

And they say there is confusion over the identity of the fall armyworm as it is similar to other types of armyworm, which are already present in Africa.

Zambia has used army planes to spray affected areas with insecticides.

- Additional reporting by the BBC


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