Experts warn against spread of fall armyworm

KIGALI - Experts have warned that the spread of the crop-destroying fall armyworm caterpillar could leave some African communities with no food at all. 

This was the popular opinion at an agricultural conference held in Kigali this week. 

At the same time, scientists in Britain are looking for a sustainable way to stop the spread of the pest without harming crops.

READ: Armyworm outbreak under control, says minister 

This crop-chomping pest has been wreaking havoc across Africa.

It's now threatening millions of farmers in Asia, after the first reported infestation in India.

Scientists say an armyworm moth can lay up to a thousand eggs in her lifetime.

Although the bugs can feed on 80 different crops, including rice and vegetables, they are targeting maize, sorghum, and millet.

READ: Armyworm damages 17 percent of maize crop: Rwanda

Toby Bruce from Keele University said, "it's a really serious threat. It could cause 20 to 50 percent crop losses of the maize crop, which is the main subsistence serial crop which the farmers and the population in general are relying on for their food supply."

Bruce is collaborating with Kenya's International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, to develop a novel pest-management system that fights 'nature with nature', rather than expensive pesticides.

They're looking at the crop variety, seeing if they can get more resistant crops and secondly searching for repellent inter-crops to be used as a deterrent to pests.

Thirdly the team is looking for attractive trap crops, the insects can be diverted to another area away from the crop. 

Lastly, they're trying to increase the abundance of the natural enemies, which attack the pest.

Bruce says 'companion cropping', or 'push-pull planting', has been used successfully against pests.

He believes it will work on the fall armyworm too.

Push-Pull planting drives pests away from the main crop, using a repellent intercrop while attracting them to alternative locations with trap plants.
The team also hopes to identify the pests' natural enemies and the plants they like most.

Here in Africa, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation field schools have trained thousands of farmers to crush the pest by hand.

Other remedies include applying ash, lime, sand or soil to infested plants.


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