Recovering from a long wrecking effect of drought on food prices, the Southern African corn farmers raise their voice on a new crisis facing their crops: Fall armyworms.
The fall armyworms was discovered in southern Africa for the first time as it wiped out thousands of acres of corn fields.
As the pest brings renewed fears of food shortages and inflation, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) says the effects could be more devastating than expected if its spread isn’t controlled.
“It’s really a national disaster because as you can see, half of my crop is gone,” says 56-year-old Godwin Mukenani who’s farm has been badly ravaged by the pest. “This has hit me below the belt” he added as he goes round his field assessing the level of damage done.
Mwiya, who has been farming for a decade, first noticed caterpillars chewing through his corn field south of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, near the end of December. Two weeks later, he’d lost half his crop to the pest as it invaded more than 10 percent of farms in the country and spread to Zimbabwe and Malawi.
This, in turn, led to about 32 million people in the region falling victim of food insecurity from June 2016 to March this year, and the cost of corn is expected to go higher than it was in the past years, according to the Regional Interagency Standing Committee for southern Africa.
“If not controlled in the countries affected, it will have devastating effects not only in those countries but on neighboring countries where corn is a staple food because the spread capacity of this pest is very high,” said David Phiri, FAO’s operations coordinator for Southern Africa
Though it is not yet clear how the fall armyworms got into Africa, scientists speculate that the pest could have arrived through the Atlantic Ocean.
Besides preying on crops, fall armyworms can become cannibalistic, eating competitors such as the African variety, according to a study by scientists including Goergen published in October.
While Zimbabwe and Zambia try to contain the fall armyworms outbreak, with the latter declaring it a national crisis and deploying the air force to help distribute pesticide, farmers in South Africa are encouraged to watch out for any sign of the pest.
“There is no doubt that the introduction of this new pest will have lasting consequences for the farmer and food security in tropical Africa,” a scientist said, adding that there would be an urgent need to develop local solutions building on the experience in the Western Hemisphere and adapting them.