Fall Armyworm Tech Prize: fighting the biggest threat to Africa’s food production

6/7/2018 12:45:58 PM

The Fall Armyworm (FAW) is one of the biggest threats to Africa’s agriculture. In just over two years, the pest of this defoliating moth species has spread to over 38 African countries. In recognition that something needs to be done to protect the continent’s food production, the Fall Armyworm Tech Prize has been launched. The prize offers $150,000 to the most viable solutions that aim to help stop the spread of the pest.

The Fall Armyworm Tech Prize, awarded by Feed the Future, supported by Land O’Lakes International Development and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, is to help prevent a disaster that is already happening. In 2016, the invasive crop pest was first confirmed in Africa. Native to the Americas, FAW can feed on 80 different crop species including maize, a staple food consumed by over 300 million African smallholder farm families. The crop pest has since been found in over 30 African countries, posing a significant threat to food security, income and livelihoods.

Maize yield losses

In a report by the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI), scientists estimate that the pest could cause extensive maize yield losses, estimated between $3.6 and $6.2 billion per year across the 12 major African maize producing countries.

When asked to comment, Dr. Segenet Kelemu, Director General and CEO of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Nairobi, Kenya, said: “This could lead to considerable reduction in production of these staple food crops, which are at the heart of African food systems and defines food security in the continent.” Agriculture is particularly in danger in maize production hotspots in both East and Southern African countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa) and West and Central Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Chad and Cameroon).

The pest is hard to beat

According to the expert, FAW is expected to become resident throughout the year, considering the prevalence of suitable climate and wide diversity of its host plants throughout the year. The pest is hard to beat as it multiplies a high speed. “Each moth can lay up to 2000 eggs in its life time. “Also, there is a lack of effective natural enemies in Africa, which facilitates rapid multiplication and spread of FAW. Further, FAW has gained resistance to most of the insecticides and even to some Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) transgenic maize, making it hard to beat.”

icipe (Nairobi) has constituted a team of scientists with diverse expertise to focus on various Research for Development (R4D) initiatives to counter the threat – in close cooperation with agricultural ministries and international organizations. To Dr. Kelemu, there is no doubt that additional research for development (R4D) efforts are urgently required to develop sustainable IPM strategies for FAW, “particularly those that are specific to Africa as the current pesticide-based emergency actions are unlikely to be sustainable in the long term.”

Hope for farmers?

Is there hope for Africa’s farmers that fear the FAW pest? There is: intercropping. icipe’s researchers have demonstrated that the so-called Push-Pull technology (PPT) could drastically reduce FAW infestation up to 86%. “Push-Pull is an intercropping strategy where the farmers use a repellent intercrop, Desmodium planted between maize rows and a border trap crop (Napier grass, or Brachiaria) for stemborers, surrounding both maize and Desmodium. The trap crops attract stemborer moths to lay eggs, while hindering the development of larvae. Desmodium also controls Striga infestation by causing suicidal germination of Striga seeds. The push-pull technology also provides high quality fodder for livestock, improves yields and addresses soil fertility issues. In addition to the PPT, intercropping maize even has been shown to reduce FAW incidence by 30 – 40% as compared to monocrop maize.”

Push-Pull is a start

The war is hardly won, but Push-Pull definitely is a start. And there are more challenges ahead. With climate change effects expected to disproportionately and negatively impacting Africa, the fall army worm will not be the only invasive pest to adversely threaten the continent in the future. Dr. Kelemu: “Africa needs to work to contain any future threats of this kind. We invite investors (individuals, governments, private foundations and others) in Africa’s development to join us in defeating this menace and future pest threats.”

 

Photo caption(s):

1.    The Fall Armyworm

2.   African cornfield under threat 

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