An insect that can infest and damage hundreds of hectares of maize fields, literally overnight, is sweeping across Asia – alarming smallholder farmers and threatening livelihoods – but the damage can be limited, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported.
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 last summer. Fall Armyworm (FAW) was first detected in India in July 2018 and by January of this year, it had spread to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and China’s Yunnan Province.
Fall Armyworm on the march in Asia – and here to stay
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 maize 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 FAW in Africa ranged from US$ 1-3 billion.
In response to the sudden onset of FAW in Asia, FAO is convening a meeting of officials from the affected countries, as well as experts who’ve been tackling the fallout of FAW in Africa and Latin America – and who have been learning ways to limit the damage.
“We are here today – together – because we share a growing sense of alarm – but also to learn from each other, particularly from those countries who’ve already been responding to their own infestations,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, Assistant Director-General and FAO Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific. “We need to work together because this is a pest that has no respect for international boundaries, threatens our food security, our economies, domestic and international trade, and of course the smallholder farmer who wakes up one morning to a cash crop under attack.”
Fall Armyworm arrival in Asia “not a surprise”
When Fall Armyworm arrived in Africa in 2016, FAO and its member counties in Asia followed the progression closely – and planned for its arrival on this continent.
“When Fall Armyworm made landfall in India last summer, its arrival did not come as a complete surprise, we were not caught unaware. And that’s a good start – indeed it was a good head start,” Kadiresan said.
The Plant Protection Commission for Asia and the Pacific began raising awareness about the threat early last year, sharing key information on the pest, its spread towards Asia, and how to manage it sustainably in case of infestation.
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 FAW on maize and other crops.
FAO has been working with the relevant authorities to initiate awareness programmes 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 biopesticides.
The use of chemical pesticides needs to be very carefully considered, given that FAW larvae hide largely in the ring of leaves (whorl), and that chemical pesticides can have negative effects on environment and public health. This is taken into consideration at policy and field level. With these measures put in place, the negative effects of infestations can be sustainably managed and can help to maintain populations low enough to limit economic and livelihood damage.