The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is to spend millions of dollars acquiring specialised trap kits to control the spread of the fall armyworm, an invasive American moth that has caused some crop damage on farmlands across southern Africa.
“FAO has initiated the process of procuring pheromone insect lure traps which are used for capturing armyworm and monitoring their spread,” said Leonard Makombe, the agency’s spokesperson, in an emailed statement.
Mr Makombe did not specify the amount of money to be spent on the project. The snares are to be distributed in all affected countries, some of which have yet to assess the full extent of the attack due to a lack of capacity.
Pheromone, an airborne chemical that attracts animals of like species to the extent of altering their behaviour and physiology, according to Wikipedia, is seen as a potential long-term strategy for bringing the fall armyworm under control.
The worm – quick on flight, not easily detectable and difficult to control – has now spread across seven southern African countries since it was first noticed early January, says FAO, causing nightmares for both governments and farmers.
In Zimbabwe, the worm has invaded 130 000 hectares of cropland, targeting its favourite prey, maize. Insectrcides are used for control.
Zambian farmers have been forced to replant crops after nearly 90,000 ha of maize was decimated, officials say.
In Malawi some 17,000 ha have so far been affected while in Namibia, approximately 50,000 ha of maize and millet has been damaged.
The greatest headache is from the fact that the fall armyworm is a first time attacker in this part of the world.
As such, there has been a lack of information and knowledge on the most effective ways of curbing the spread of a pest that eats everything in its way – from leaf to cob to stalk, including competitors.
Regular contact pesticides used to deal with the more familiar African armyworm or the stalk borer have yielded undesirable results, forcing some small farmers to turn to unorthodox control measures including the application of washing powder onto the funnel of the maize crop. There are reports of some success in this regard, but insect specialists here aren’t pleased.
“…we are very concerned with the emergence, intensity and spread of the pest (fall armyworm),” said David Phiri, FAO sub-regional coordinator for southern Africa, at an emergency Sadc meeting held in Harare two weeks back, to deal with runaway crop pests like the fall armyworm.
Phiri is worried that the scale of economic impact from uncontrolled pest infestations could be staggering for individual Sadc nations, as well as the region as a whole. And he knows it all too well.
“It is only a matter of time before most of the region will be affected, and the costs and implications of this are very serious, as seen in places where fall armyworm is endemic such as Brazil, where the government spends in excess of $600 million each year to try to control infestations,” he cautioned.
FAO said it will support Sadc countries with expertise and funding to close gaps on early warning, response, information dissemination and scientific research, which have impeded understanding of the fall armyworm and its effective control.