A high-powered agricultural crisis conference, represented by major countries in Asia, has been held in Bangkok to discuss methods of dealing with a pest which is destroying crops across the continent.
Origins of the pest affecting farmers livelihoods
Its full name is the Fall Armyworm (FAW). It first appeared 2 years ago and has its origins in the Americas and Africa. This pest (official title: Spodoptera Frugiperda) is a tiny caterpillar which has invaded the cornfields of farms in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Yemen and China. It can feed on more than 80 different plant species including maize, rice, sorghum, cotton and even vegetables. Only 2 years ago in Rwanda the government had to deploy its defence force in order to work alongside farmers to restrict its damaging rampage.
FAW has spread speedily from the America’s and Africa into Asia
The pest spreads very easily which is why it appears to be travelling so quickly across the globe. When the caterpillar turns into a moth it can fly over 100 km per night and the female moth can lay up to 1000 eggs in her lifetime. The eggs in themselves are tiny and can therefore be blown by the wind. Researchers and scientists estimate that they too can travel up to 60 miles a day. Already Sri Lanka has lost a fifth of its maize production to the pest.
The UN FAO brings affected Asian countries together
As the cereal killer is sweeping across the continent, the UN FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) has paid special attention to unite the Asian nations. The organisation aims to find ways to restrict the effects of the devestation before it destroys the everyday livelihood of the common smallholder farmer, the national food industry, and the economy itself. The 3-day conference comprising representatives from all the affected Asian countries took place in Bangkok at the end of March. At the meeting, the committee warned that the FAW is here to stay but it must be managed to limit further damage. As the various countries exchanged experiences and methods, an outline for future advances was made.
Factors needed for combatting FAW in the future
- The Fall Armyworm is currently being tackled by biopesticides and sex pheromone traps in northern districts of Bangladesh. But the authorities are also aware that the overuse of chemical pesticides could have a detrimental effect on the environment or indeed on any finished product.
- Education is essential and so the governments of many Asian countries have printed thousands of the FAW factsheet to distribute among agricultural workers and farmers.
- It was agreed there also needs to be further research into how FAW survives and complementary methods need to be harness effects and prevent its spread. At the Bangladesh agricultural university, they have found that it only takes a short period of 2 to 3 weeks to generate thousands of worms from one adult.
- Identifying and using natural enemies of FAW could be as beneficial as using chemicals with less side-effects to the environment and the public.
- Crushing egg masses has been seen to be effective.
- Sustainable management practices used in the Americas now need to be adapted to Africa’s and Asia’s socio-economic environmental context.
There are no reports yet as to how FAW is affecting countries economically in Asia, but since the outbreak in 2016, the UN FAO estimate financial damage in Africa around $ 1-3 billion.
Ongoing research in Asia
Further research was triggered in Thailand following the 3-day conference in Bangkok. The Department of Agriculture (DOA) is currently experimenting with pest management using spinetoram, chlorantriniprole, chlorfenapyr and indoxacarb. A representative from the DOA in Thailand stated to the Bangkok Post “The Fall Armyworms are here to stay. We need to holistically manage them to reduce effects on agriculture. […] we have put in place a range of management measures with the support of international organisations such as the UN FAO.”
Even though the concept of using chemicals to deal with FAW may well look good on paper there may be practical issues which may cause a stumbling block. For instance, the use of chemicals and pesticides are notoriously expensive and quite an investment for the smallholder farmer. It is not clear yet whether the state may be able to help out with this expense in the future.
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