Invasive Fall Armyworm Could Cause Mass Hunger In Africa

The fall armyworm that was identified in Africa last year is destroying maize crops in several countries across the continent. Calling for urgent action, scientists have warned that if the spread of the pest is not controlled soon, it could cause mass starvation in Africa. The fall armyworm has already destroyed large swaths of crops in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and other countries.

The fall armyworm is destroying Africa’s staple food

The UK-based Center for Agriculture and Biosciences International (Cabi), which has been tracking the spread of the caterpillar, said the armyworm was spreading rapidly across mainland Africa. The pest could reach Asia and the Mediterranean in just a few years. Researchers at Cabi said the armyworm has a preference for maize, which is a staple food in most African countries.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is holding an emergency meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe to determine the emergency responses to the threat. Dr. Matthew Cock, chief scientist at Cabi, said the urgent action was needed to prevent the losses to crops and farmers’ livelihoods. The fall armyworm, a native to North and South America, may have reached Africa through imported produce, believe scientists.

It affects more than 100 crops

The fall armyworm had not previously been identified outside the North and South America. Though the insect mainly destroys maize plants, it has also been found to attack more than 100 other crops such as sugarcane, cabbage, rice, soybeans, and beet. It gets its name “fall armyworm” because of its tendency to migrate during fall in large numbers, invading fields and destroying crops.

Dr Matthew Cock said in a statement that the pest’s strong flight ability helps it spread quickly in large areas. According to Bloomberg, the fall armyworm can destroy about 90% of crops it infests. Reuters pointed out that the pest has been found in every district of Malawi, where about a third of population already depends on food aid. The American armyworm is more harmful than the African strain.

The outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time

The American armyworm is also harder to detect and eradicate than the African worm. Cabi scientists are currently working to understand how the worm reached Africa, how it spreads, and how farmers in the continent could control its spread in an environmentally friendly manner. The agriculture minister of South Africa said Monday that the country was working to determine the extent of crop damage.

African nations with confirmed outbreak of the fall armyworm could even face import bans on their agricultural produce. That’s because it is classified as a quarantine pest. The outbreak comes at a time when most African countries are emerging from their worst drought in almost four decades.