By Esther Nakkazi
A more coordinated research-for-development (R4D) action plan is urgently needed to ensure that effective and affordable solutions reach smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa so they can sustainably combat the voracious fall armyworm an international conference heard.
The international conference held from Oct. 29 to 31 at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was also aimed at drawing a science-based roadmap to combat the fall armyworm.
“We must look at the big picture to design safer, accessible, effective and sustainable solutions against fall armyworm,” said Martin Kropff, director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
“Fall armyworm has been the fastest pest to expand across the continent,” said Eyasu Abraha, Ethiopia’s State Minister for agriculture development.
African leaders consider the invasive fall armyworm “a big threat for African food security,” said Amira Elfadil, African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, at the opening of the conference.
Since the initial shock in 2016, various stakeholders – farmers, researchers, extension officers, agribusinesses, governments, and donors have reacted quickly to fight the invasive pest in various ways.
They have used pesticides, agroecological approaches and new seeds but still the situation is far from under control. African farmers have as well lost millions of dollars in earnings due to the loss of crops to the fall armyworm.
The rapid increase of the pesticide market in Africa has led to the circulation of plenty of banned or counterfeit products, some very toxic, said Steven Haggblade, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University, USA. Besides, most farmers are also often not well trained in the use of such chemicals and do not protect themselves during application, he said.
On the other hand, pesticide use also has many negative trade-offs, said Paul Jepson, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University.
Natural enemies like parasitic wasps are also often far more vulnerable to pesticides than fall armyworm larvae, which are hard to reach and hide in the maize whorls for instance.
Since it was first detected in Nigeria and São Tomé, the moth has spread across more than 40 African countries where it has found an ideal environment, with diverse agro-ecologies and a warmer climate all year round amplifying its persistent threat. It has also been seen in India since July 2018.
Entomologists are trying to fill a knowledge gap in how the fall armyworm behaves and migrates throughout Africa. What is known is that it has a host range of more than 80 plant species, including maize, can cause total crop losses, and at advanced larval development, stages can be difficult to control even with synthetic pesticides.
The female fall armyworm can lay up to a thousand eggs at a time and produce multiple generations very quickly without pause in tropical environments. The moth can fly 100 km (62 miles) a night, and some moth populations have even been reported to fly distances of up to 1,600 kilometers in 30 hours, according to experts.
During the conference, experts debated intensely on the technical gaps and the best ways to combat the pest through an integrated pest management strategy, including how to scout the caterpillar in the crop field, establish monitoring and surveillance systems, pest control innovations and appropriate policy support to accelerate the introduction of relevant innovations.
They also heard the many collaborative initiatives, including national task forces and expert working groups, which have informed the current state of knowledge but were cautioned about the many still existing knowledge and technology gaps.
“The cost of not collaborating is pretty severe,” said Regina Eddy, who leads the Fall Armyworm Task Force at the USAID Bureau for Food Security. “The real gamechanger will be that all experts agree on a common and concrete research-for-development agenda and how to organize ourselves to implement it effectively.”
The conference was jointly coordinated by CIMMY and hosted by the Fall Armyworm R4D International Consortium which recommended that common methodologies and research protocols be developed to ensure data from various studies across the continent are better used and compared. For instance, this would look at how best could the true impacts of the fall armyworm on food and seed security, public health and environment be measured?
Conference participants also agreed to work on defining economic and action thresholds for fall armyworm interventions, to ensure better recommendations to the farming communities and that advice must include the use of environmentally safer pesticides, low-cost agronomic practices and landscape management and fall armyworm-resistant varieties, among other integrated pest management tools.