Particular regions of southern Africa are currently grappling with food crises caused by record-setting droughts. On top of this, a new crop-eater is singling out these vulnerable areas. In doing so, the crop-eater’s presence causes concern for a new food crisis in southern Africa.
The pest is called a “fall armyworm,” though it is far more caterpillar-like than that of a worm. The first report of an infestation came from South Africa’s agricultural department in early February, when they noted its arrival and unfamiliarity.
The fall armyworm does not originate in Africa and is instead proven to come from the Americas. Experts believe the invasion may have arrived on ships of maize imported from the Americas during the El Nino between 2015 and 2016. The same El Nino jumpstarted the droughts that southern Africa is still currently wrestling through.
Farmers have likened the infestation of this new, strange pest to “one of the 10 plagues in the Bible […] It’s widespread and seems to be spreading rapidly.”
Indeed, there are several problems caused by the fall armyworm that may induce a new food crisis in southern Africa.
- While the fall armyworm feeds off of a variety of crops, such as cotton, soybean and tobacco, it is primarily targeting southern Africa’s primary food staple—maize.
- An armyworm-infested crop is not noticeable until it’s too late. The pest conceals itself from farmers by digging straight into the stem of the maize. Up to three-quarters of the crop can be destroyed without visibility.
- The worm has spread to six countries in eight weeks. The armyworms eventually develop into moths that are capable of traveling long distances. Each moth can lay up to 2,000 eggs, and each egg has a rapid life cycle.
- The fall armyworms are invading right on the heels of a horrific drought. A food crisis in southern Africa on top of an already-existing food shortage could be catastrophic.
Currently, the fall armyworm has traveled to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique. New reports are currently developing in Nigeria and Ghana. Unfortunately, the Americas—where the fall armyworm originates—first reported infestations in 1957 and have still been unable to find solutions to eradicate them. They are considered second only to the red locusts in terms of the amount of damage they are able to inflict.
The most farmers can do now is try to control the invasion through pesticides and careful watch for larva in the leaves of their crops.
In the meantime, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is holding an emergency meeting on this matter later this week in Zimbabwe.
– Brenna Yowell