Fall armyworm crop pest is 'here to stay' and Asian farmers must learn to cope with it, says UN

Ben Farmer
The fall armyworm, native to the Americas, has spread to China three months after arriving in India - www.alamy.com

The dreaded fall armyworm crop pest is “here to stay” in Asia less than a year after arriving and farmers must now be taught to live with the voracious caterpillar, the United Nations has said.

The moth which is thought to have caused as much as $3bn of agricultural damage chomping through Africa in the past three years has now spread in Asia to China, only months after first making landfall in India.

Agricultural experts last week met in Bangkok to draw up action plans to deal with an insect which has proven almost impossible to eradicate.

The pest, Spodoptera frugiperda, mainly devours maize in its caterpillar phase, but can feed on more than 80 plants species, including other key crops like rice, sorghum, cotton and vegetables.

The three-day meeting convened by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation was held as farming experts reported “a growing sense of alarm” about the pest, said Kundhavi Kadiresan, assistant director-general of the body.

“We need to work together because this is a pest that has no respect for international boundaries, threatens our food security, our economies, domestic and international trade, and of course the smallholder farmer who wakes up one morning to a cash crop under attack,” he said ahead of the summit.

The moth is a native of the Americas, but has been on the march east in recent years. It was first spotted in Africa in 2016 and has gone on to spread rapidly though the sub-Saharan belt. It then leapt to Asia, being spotted for the first time in the southern Indian state of Karnataka state in the middle of 2018.

Female caterpillars are able to lay huge numbers of eggs during their lives and can be blown long distances by winds, spreading at up to 60 miles per day. Farmers had by the start of this year confirmed its relentless march to to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and China’s Yunnan Province.

Plans to deal with the pest included monitoring networks to track its spread and sharing tips to lessen its impact from other parts of the world. While farmers in the Americas have coped with the moth for millennia, those unused to it have been caught defenceless. It has caused havoc among African farmers who had never seen the voracious pest when it first arrived in Nigeria in 2016.

“The meeting stressed the importance of information exchange between countries in the region, and between regions,” Marjon Fredrix, an FAO agricultural officer, told the Telegraph.

“One of the topics to further this work is development of biological controls for fall armyworm to better ensure sustainable management in the future.”

As well as pesticides, farmers have been able to cut their losses by planting a mixture of crops to include those that repel the pest, manually killing caterpillars, or using the worm's natural insect predators and parasites to cull the caterpillars.

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