Experts, policy makers meet to plot war against fall armyworm

Thursday September 28 2017

Maize plants infested with the fall armyworm.

Maize plants infested with the fall armyworm. PHOTO FILE | NATION 

By HALIMA ABDALLAH
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Scientists across Africa are designing long-term interventions that are environmentally friendly to deal with the fall armyworm, whose invasion has devastated farmers, with a far-reaching impact on economies and food security.

At a meeting in Entebbe recently, the continent’s top scientists, development partners and policy makers pondered the use of biotechnology, bio-pesticides or chemical pesticides to control the worm that is now threatening trade among countries.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) said that besides recording losses in produce, especially maize and rice, it has received complaints that some countries are rejecting cereals from countries affected by the fall armyworm.

FAO views this development as a threat to plans to end hunger by 2030 and a recipe for increasing poverty, hunger and escalating refugee problems in Africa.

“We believe that FAW will compound the economic impact, as there will be no jobs… FAO is taking this matter very seriously, because it covers exports at country, regional and sub-regional levels,” said FAO’s representative to the African Union, Patrick Kormawa.

Jointly find solutions

Although Mr Kormawa declined to name the countries whose cereal trade has been blocked, but suggested that heads of state jointly find solutions.

FAW has by far invaded Sao Tome and Principe, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and it is expected to move further.

This is why the experts brought together by Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (Asareca) want to work to critically manage the pest while taking care of the environment.

“In the short run, there was panic. We had insecticides, but what was in stock was not meant to manage FAW. We had suggestions to use high dosages, but what about the environment?

We went for the best bet and yielded positive results,” said Ambrose Agona, director-general of Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro).

Trial and error is now not an option, because the FAW (Fall Armyworm) is not an outbreak any more; its management presents serious environmental, health and social challenges that call for calculated use, the scientists said.

This is why steering clear of such responsibilities, even FAO prefers countries to make own decision regarding its use.

“As FAO, we do not recommend use of pesticides, but countries have the right to manage their use as advised by its experts. We will not — and have not — recommended pesticide use,” said Dr Kormawa.

Countries affected by the have often applied bio-pesticides, because they are being environmentally friendly, as natural predators feed on the worms without causing negative effects on crops, humans or the environment.

Growing GMO crops

On the other hand, proponents for genetic engineering hold the view that growing GMO crops will offer remedies to the fall armyworm. The downside is that they cannot be replanted and, every crop season, farmers must buy new seeds. 

“There is no single-bullet solution. Pests have become resistant in some cases and GMOs are not as effective as proposed because, since 2010, we have seen an increase in pesticide use in countries that grow GMOs,” said George Georgen, researcher at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, who discovered the fall armyworm in Africa.

“It is matter of using less hazardous pesticides like bio-pesticides, which do not affect the environment. That, again, could be expensive for most farmers, because they have to pay for them,” said Dr Georgen.

But the additional use of farm inputs implies that farmers must sell their produce at higher prices to match the costs of production.

The use of bio-pesticides, for example, requires a farmer to spend addition $10 per hectare. According to Georgen, bio-pesticides are the most economical to farmers who have massive production capacities.

Unlike countries in the Americas, where the fall armyworms species make preferences to certain crops, in Africa, the species feed on any crops it comes into contact with. When there is are no crops, it goes to the rangeland.

“We should develop capacity to manage it so that it does not cause so much damage, but we should also not have false hopes that we will eradicate it,” said Cyprian Ebong, interim executive secretary of Asareca.

FAO has set aside $500,000 for interventions like building the capacity of governments to tackle the worm. American scientists have lately been sharing knowledge with their African counterparts.