The fall armyworm menace cost African farmers 40 per cent of their harvest in 2018. Amid COVID-19 spread, controlling the pest has become even more difficult
Africa’s food production and systems are facing unprecedented challenges — especially from transboundary and invasive pests of plants, animals and the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
These challenges demand urgent action alongside financial and non-financial resources. One of the biggest concerns is the spread of fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), which has been threatening food production in the continent for years now.
The fall armyworm (FAW) made its first appearance in the continent in 2016. It originated from the tropical Americas and later spread to Africa, the Near East and Asia. It is now reported in at least 44 African countries.
The pest is a global threat — it affects 80 different crops, especially the staple ones. The menace has cost farmers and producers 40 per cent of harvests in 2018, according to an analysis of 12 African countries. This has translated to potential maize yield losses as high as 17.7 million tonnes annually — an amount enough to feed millions.
The economic value of fall armyworm damage to maize alone was $2.5-6.3 billion annually in 2018. The economic impact in terms of crop loss was estimated at $117 million in Ghana and $159 million in Zambia.
The FAW is a dangerous threat to Africa for the following reasons:
FAO’s bull by the horn approach
In order to combat FAW’s aggressive spread, the Director-General of Food and Agriculture of the United Nations (FAO), QU Dongyu took a bold step by launching a $500 million ‘Global Action’ for FAW control in December 2019.
The three-year (2020-2022) global initiative will take direct, pragmatic and coordinated measures to strengthen the prevention and sustainable control of the transboundary pest.
In addition, several collaborations and activities led by FAO have begun to have positive preliminary impact on the FAW management:
In addition, FAO and Penn State University have jointly developed an Android app called Fall Armyworm Monitoring System (FAMEWS). It is available in 29 languages and provides real-time and field-level information about the pest’s location, prevalence and spread to a global data platform every two hours, with specific tips on how to contain infestations.
The partnership launched an app called PlantVillage Nuru along with the consortium of international research centres. It aims to help African farmers identify FAW and other pests so that they can curb its impact.
The app is available in English, French and Swahili.
Experts generally agree that the IPM approach, based on sustainable options, is the best solution to control FAW spread including but not limited to the following:
Efforts to combat FAW must consider the efficacy, food safety, environmental integrity and sustainability and public health. This requires informed, evidence-based decision and policy guides to protect biodiversity from indiscriminate use of pesticides.
Effective and responsive governance is needed, including policies to regulate practices and remove necessary barriers. The need of the hour is to mobilise resources, foster public-private partnerships investment and strengthen national institutional capacity.