An insect pest that can infest and damage or destroy fields of corn and other crops overnight is migrating across Asia to the alarm of smallholder farmers whose livelihoods are threatened, but the damage can be limited, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said.
The so-called Fall Armyworm was first detected In Indonesia in West Sumatra in March this year, and within 4 months the pest has spread to 12 provinces in Indonesia in Sumatra, Java and some parts of Kalimantan. The Ministry of Agriculture has been gathering information on the losses from crops infested and damaged by the pest.
The Directorate of Plant Protection in the Ministry of Agriculture has urged all provinces to be vigilant to the Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda). In the field, local Government extension workers raise the awareness of farmers in the affected areas, and together they monitor the fields that have been attacked.
“We are closely monitoring the movement of Fall Armyworm in Indonesia. Our extension workers have worked in the field to advise farmers on how to protect crops and reduce the damage caused by this attack. We anticipate that the Fall Armyworm attack is going to infest cornfields right across Indonesia in the coming months”, Director of Plant Protection Edy Purnawan said.
Fall Armyworm flies into Indonesia to stay
Fall Armyworm is native to the Americas. However, since 2016 it has been aggressively moving ever eastwards, sweeping across Africa, and making landfall for the first time in Asia in mid-2018 in India and by January of this year, it has since spread to Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand before arriving in Indonesia.
In the case of Sri Lanka, there were reports that up to 40,000 hectares had been infested, damaging some 20 percent of its crops. China is the biggest corn producer in Asia, and second-largest producer globally. While economic losses there and in the other Asian countries have not yet been tallied, estimates of economic damage from the pest in Africa ranged from US$ 1-3 billion.
In response to the sudden onset of Fall Armyworm in Asia, FAO convened a meeting of officials from countries across the region in March, and brought in experts who have been tackling the pest in Africa and Latin America and learning ways to limit the damage.
In Indonesia, FAO is supporting the Government as it responds to the outbreak and advises farmers on how to respond to the attack. “The Government will be co-organizing a national workshop with FAO at the end of July to agree on the most effective action to respond to this attack. We will take up the lessons learned from other countries who have already been responding to their own infestations’, FAO Representative in Indonesia Stephen Rudgard said.
Best practices to slow the spread and limit the damage
Once an infestation is confirmed, governments are initiating efforts to continue to raise awareness and monitor the presence and spread of Fall Armyworm on corn and other crops.
FAO has been working with the relevant authorities to initiate awareness programs that inform and train farmers on integrated pest management techniques. These include identifying natural enemies of the Fall Armyworm, enhancing natural biological controls and mechanical controls, such as crushing egg masses and employing the use of bio-pesticides.
Indonesia has many natural enemies of this pest, and farmers can attract these animals to their fields, reducing the infestations. One study from Ethiopia found one wasp parasite had killed almost half of pest population within two years of the confirmed arrival of Fall Armyworm in the country.
The use of chemical pesticides needs to be very carefully considered, given that the pest caterpillars are protected from sprays because they hide deep in the crop foliage, and also such pesticides can have negative effects on natural enemies and on farmers’ health.
If effective measures are put in place, the negative effects of Fall Armyworm can be reduced with populations maintained at low enough levels to limit economic and livelihood damage.