Kenya faces huge losses from armyworm, US warns

Tuesday April 10 2018

Fall armyworm

Fall armyworm has ravaged farms in Kenya and across Africa, compromising food security. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

By KEVIN J. KELLEY
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Kenya and other major maize-producing countries in Africa could incur “staggering” food and financial losses from the invasion of a voracious pest known as the fall armyworm, a US government official warned on Tuesday.

Up to 50 per cent of an annual maize crop can be destroyed by the fall armyworm, said Regina Eddy, coordinator of a US Agency for International Development (USAid) task force focused on the threat.

The pest also attacks millet, sorghum, cotton, sugar and additional crops, Ms Eddy noted.

'HERE TO STAY'

And although it only recently arrived from the Americas, the fall armyworm “will likely be in fields forever” in Africa, she added. Ms Eddy cited a Brazilian farmer's comment that “it's like a marriage without a divorce.”

Sub-Saharan climate conditions are “ideal” for the rapid spread of the fall armyworm, she pointed out. The absence of frost will enable the pest to live throughout the year, multiply quickly and damage crops over a wide area.

The anticipated ravages caused by the insect, which is actually a caterpillar and not a worm, could well worsen critical food shortages afflicting parts of Kenya and other African countries, Ms Eddy said.

“The first mouth that will be fed will be the fall armyworm's,” she noted in regard to its impact on smallholders' farms. In addition to depriving families of nourishment, the pest will take a toll on farmers' incomes, Ms Eddy said.

MONETARY LOSSES

USAid has yet to develop specific estimates for the monetary losses Kenya could suffer as a result of its invasion and occupation by the fall armyworm, Ms Eddy said.

She pointed, however, to a study commissioned last year by the British government's Department for International Development. It found that in 12 African countries, total potential losses could range from $2.5 billion to $6.3 billion.

Tanzania and Uganda were included in that grouping, while Kenya was not due to what the study's authors said was insufficient data on Kenyan agro-ecological zones, maize production and economic value.

In fighting back against the pest, “we do believe all technological options should be on the table,” Ms Eddy declared.

That includes the use of genetically modified maize seeds that enable plants to resist the fall armyworm's aggression, she said. The pest has been controlled in the US and Brazil, where about 85 percent of maize farmers plant GMO seeds, Ms Eddy observed.

USAid recently arranged for officials from 10 African countries, including Kenya, to visit Brazil to learn about its successful methods of defending against fall armyworm.

A range of approaches can be taken once the fall armyworm has established itself on maize or other crops.

SOLUTIONS

Chemical and organic pesticides have proved effective, Ms Eddy said. The bug can also be removed from leaves by labour-intensive handpicking, she added. Inter-cropping, or planting rows of beans alongside maize, can “confuse the fall armyworm” and lessen its destructiveness, she said.

USAid is providing video clips and other visual aids to African farmers to help them identify the distinctive markings of the fall armyworm, Ms Eddy noted.

Under an Obama-era initiative known as Feed the Future, the US plans to spend up to $400,000 on digital means of combating the fall armyworm in Africa.

Cash prizes will be awarded to digital developers who devise the most promising solutions.

Responding to reporters' questions in a teleconference on Tuesday, Ms Eddy said she knew of no “validated evidence” linking the spread of fall armyworm to climate change. It is likely that the insect “hopped a flight” from the Americas to Africa, she suggested.

In addition to not actually being a worm, the pest's name is misleading in another way. It is most active in the US in autumn, but the fall armyworm will be prevalent in Africa year-round, Ms Eddy clarified.

The “army” reference stems from the insect's relentless march during which it destroys targets and then advances to a new field of battle.