Armyworm invasion not the last, warns UK ecologist

Armyworm invasion not the last, warns UK ecologist

By Mbita Bwali

THE increased growing of maize in Zambia has significantly contributed to rapid spread of armyworms in the country, says Professor Kenneth Wilson.

And Prof Wilson says the armyworm invasion Zambia has witnessed this farming season is not the last one the country will suffer from the destructive pests.

Meanwhile, Prof Wilson says there is need to devise cheaper ways of fighting armyworms especially among the most affected poor farmers.

Prof Wilson, an ecologist from Lancaster University, said this in an interview soon after delivering a paper at the University of Zambia titled “Armyworms in Africa: An existing and A new threat to food security”.

Prof Wilson said armyworms which mostly attacked cereal plants found maize to be their favourite.

“Half of Zambia is covered in maize, so if it was going to attack any crop, it’s likely it was going to attack maize and maize is growing very well at the moment,” Prof Wilson said.

He said the armyworms had the potential to cause a serious food security problem not just in Zambia but in the entire Sub-Saharan region.

“It’s likely that it’s going to be a big threat going forward; we can’t be sure just yet because although it is found in lots of countries so far, in several regions, there has been a lot of control efforts and that may have worked,” Prof Wilson said.

“The area of the crop that has been attacked has been very substantial, so if that attack translates into damage, then it is going to be a big threat.”

He said apart from armyworms, Zambia, like other countries, still remained under threat from evasive pests, mainly being driven by weather patterns, and were not prepared to combat them.

“The armyworm which is a very evasive species only arrived [first in Africa in Nigeria] 12 months ago and so it is not a long time to prepare anyway. Until December, it was only restricted to West Africa,” Prof Wilson said. “It has now suddenly come to Southern Africa in seven different countries in three months. So it is going to spread. What needs to happen is to have regional response for the regional problem and control of all trans-boundary pests and diseases.”

He said heavy rains experienced this year had helped to spread the armyworms.

“They tend to move with the rainfall – where the winds and rains push them, that is where you see the movements. The rains have moved gradually towards the South and so with that movement of the moth, and also the increase in the growth of the maize in that region, it means there is food available for them to eat,” Prof Wilson said.

He said armyworms were being ‘imported’ into Africa.

“Imports from other countries could have contributed to the outbreak of the fall armyworms. They could have flown here but most likely they came with produce from South America or Central America and it could have been on any crop,” Prof Wilson explained.

“What we need to do in the short-term and longer term…and more generally, how are we going to stop evasive pests from coming into Africa? We need to think about stronger and stricter phyto-sanitary control measures. The monitoring side of things is relatively straightforward; the control side of things is also relatively straightforward but these are political decisions and also can be quite emotive decisions; they can be complex decisions.”

He said there was need for quicker and more effective interventions against armyworms which could easily be employed by peasant farmers who were the hardest hit by the pests.

“They [poor farmers] will be the ones who mostly rely on the crops that they are growing; most of them will have mixed crops they are growing of maize and beans to feed their families and a little bit of surplus for the school fees and so if they have an attack of army-worms, their lives are threatened,” said Prof Wilson.

“So, probably the best thing to do for them is to try to control by simpler and cheaper means by sprinkling with sand or salt… also they can use local plants that are available such as pawpaw leaves, they can be used as a cheap means to fight armyworms. There is need to promote indigenous resources as pesticides for armyworms even before you talk about the chemical.”