In an interim report presented at AGRF 2017, CABI delivered new figures on the spread of the Fall Armyworm (FAW) reporting the pest had now infested 28 African countries, following its arrival in Africa in early 2016.

FAW now presents a permanent agricultural challenge for the continent, said Mr Roger Day, SPS Coordinator for CABI, during an open presentation and panel discussion at the forum.

The worm feeds on more than 80 crops, but prefers maize and can cut yields by up to 60 per cent, raising a substantial threat to the continent’s agricultural output, and now requiring urgent coordination and action.

Panellist Dr Godfrey Ching’oma of the Malawian Ministry of Agriculture reported the attack was ‘huge’ in Malawi, hitting around 138,000 ha of maize out of a total in Malawi of around 1.7m ha. That represented 8 per cent of the country’s entire maize production, prompting the government to buy 25,000 litres of pesticide in a bid to control the invasion, compared with normal buying each year of just 3,000 litres for the African Armyworm.

But as delegate Sandy Roberts of DEVCO reported, in Zimbabwe, “it came hard, it came fast, and we were literally caught napping”.

“In Mozambique, I was recently on a farm where 25 people were plucking off the worms. They were calling them pythons, they were so large,” she said.

Panelist Dr Bodduupalli Prasanna, the director of CIMMYT’s global maize program reported, however, that help might be on the way. CIMMYT has been testing maize seeds that are naturally resistant to the worm, in Kenya, in recent months, with first tests showing that these varieties suffer far less damage than maize that is susceptible to the worm.

Prasanna said CIMMYT was now developing a natural hybrid based on the tests and was in talks with seed company Monsanto to try to accelerate the licensing and sale of the FAW resistant seeds, which are conventionally derived. He also reported that VIP 3A genetically modified seeds offered greater potential still and could be available for sale within the next three to four years, as a solution that might re-open debate in some countries around allowing the sale of GM seeds.

If not properly managed, CABI now estimates, based on recent on research in Ghana and Zambia, that the financial cost of the worm in just 10 of Africa’s maize producing countries could be as high as $5.5bn a year.

But managing the worm needed to be coordinated nationally and internationally, the panel concluded.

“In Malawi, as government, we cannot fight this problem of Fall Armyworm alone, so we had to create a task force where we included donor partners, especially FAO, as one of the technical assistance partners, and even NGOs who are working in rural areas to formulate a short term, medium term and long term plan to sort out this problem,” said Ching’oma.

“One major problem was our extension workers didn’t know the management of Fall Armyworm, it being a new pest, so we had to train them through what we call the training of trainers whereby we brought them to a place and taught them the biology, ecology and management of FAW and we even taught them on the control options which were available. But the only option that we had was chemicals, because we didn’t have information on predators, we didn’t have information on other environmentally safe strategies. So, as government, we had to buy pesticides.”

Mr Jean Bahama, Plant Production and Protection Officer at the FAO reported the UN agency would be launching guidelines on how to best deal with the worm in coming days, and was now engaged with many of the continent’s governments in supporting a heightened response to the worm’s attack.

African Union Commissioner Josefa Sacko said the infestation was also now high on the AU’s agenda, with heightened resources being assigned to addressing the policy and strategic needs of the continent in addressing the worm, which had the capacity to undo all the gains of agricultural transformation to date.