• Friday, Nov 22, 2019
  • Last Update : 01:32 pm

A cereal killer on the prowl

  • Published at 12:42 am March 23rd, 2019
Fall Armyworm
Fall Armyworm – a plant pest, alien to Asia – is invading the cornfields across the continent; triggering a high alert about future food security Courtesy

Bangladesh rolls out contingency plan, UN holds emergency meeting of affected Asian countries to fight the pest

A tiny caterpillar, hitherto alien to Asia, has invaded thousands of hectares of cornfields—in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Yemen, and China—in its first outbreak on the continent; triggering a high alert about future food security.  

Two years ago, Rwanda had to deploy its defence force to fight an army of the deadly pest—Fall Armyworm (FAW)—alongside farmers, to protect crops. This year, Sri Lanka has lost a fifth of its maize production to invading FAW. 

With the United Nations' (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) taking the lead in uniting the affected Asian countries against this cereal killer plant pest, the government of Bangladesh has rolled out an emergency contingency plan to contain the dangerous leaf-eaters.

Five months since it was first spotted in Bangladesh, FAW infestations have been spotted in a fourth of the country’s 64 districts. Farm officials fear a nationwide spread in the coming summer, especially in maize growing zones, unless the pest is contained. 

Officials confirmed to the Dhaka Tribune that FAW was spotted feasting on maize and cabbage leaves in some northern districts, but it has since being tackled through combined applications of bio-pesticides and sex pheromone traps.  

In just nine months since FAW was first spotted in Karnataka, in June last year, it has invaded crops in more than 10 Indian states and affected nearly 1.7 lakh hectares of maize crops.

The UN FAO—which is helping Bangladesh, as well as other countries, to fight back Fall Armyworm—just concluded a meeting in Bangkok, yesterday, involving all the affected Asian countries because it says, “A plant pest, alien to Asia, is sweeping across the continent causing serious damage to crops and livelihoods.”     

A FAW infestation was first confirmed outside of its native Americas, in Africa, in early 2016. Since then it has spread rapidly across Sub-Saharan Africa, infesting tens of millions of hectares of maize, sorghum, and millet. Now it is in Asia, and in a big way.

FAO says, “In mid-2018 Fall Armyworm arrived in India and has continued to spread quickly. By the end of last year, there were reports of infestations in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and by mid-January [2019] further reports emerged of FAW’s presence in Thailand and Myanmar. It is also confirmed in China.” 

Fall Armyworm on the march in Asia

At its Bangkok meeting, held from March 20 to 22, the UN FAO warned that the pest is “here to stay,”  but that it can be managed to limit damage.

In the case of Sri Lanka, there were reports that up to 40,000 hectares had been infested, damaging some 20 percent of its crops. China is the biggest maize producer in Asia, and second largest producer globally. While economic losses there, and in the other Asian countries, have not yet been tallied, estimates of economic damage from FAW in Africa range from US$ 1-3 billion, stated FAO. 

“We are here today—together—because we share a growing sense of alarm; but also to learn from each other, particularly from those countries who have already been responding to their own infestations,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, Assistant Director-General and FAO Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific. 

“We need to work together because this is a pest that has no respect for international boundaries, threatens: our food security, our economies, domestic and international trade, and of course the smallholder farmer who wakes up one morning to a cash crop under attack.”

Why it is vital for Bangladesh to fight FAW

Bangladeshi farmers started growing maize, mainly for feed purposes, in the ‘90s; with yearly output hovering below 1 lakh metric tons (MT). Thanks to a burgeoning poultry and fish feed industry, annual maize production now exceeds 30 lakh MT. Still the country requires imports in excess of another 10 lakh MT of maize to cater to the domestic feed industry needs.   

Ministry of Agriculture officials say if FAW is not contained—and it succeeds spreading all over maize-growing zones of Bangladesh—the country’s imports dependency will increase.  

Measures Bangladesh is taking to tackle the crisis

As chemical pesticides are not an answer to FAW: “We have decided to apply biopesticides and pheromone traps to tackle the pest menace,” Dr. Syed Nurul Alam, a director of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) told Dhaka Tribune.

He said chemical pesticides could not contain it in Sri Lanka, where the FAW situation has taken a serious turn.

He said in two phases, 35,000 units of sex pheromones would be imported from China and Netherlands.  

Pheromone traps typically help lure male pests to mate with their female counterparts and they get caught in farmers’ fields. 

Dr Wais Kabir, who heads the Krishi Gobeshana Foundation (KGF), said the government has printed thousands of copies of FAW fact sheets to distribute among the agriculture extension workers and farmers. 

The fact sheet advises farmers to use pheromone traps and spray a virus called Spodoptera nuclear polyhedrosis virus (SNPV) to kill FAW. 

Prof Dr Khandakar Shariful Islam teaches entomology at the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) and currently researches about FAW at his lab. He told this correspondent that Fall Armyworm multiplies rapidly. It takes just two-to-three weeks to generate a thousand of these pests from one. “If the new environment [Bangladesh] suits them well, they will increase their population soon, which may wreak havoc on maize and other crop fields.”

Emphasizing the importance of using combined measures—of applying biopesticides, chemical pesticides and pheromones—Prof Sharifil highlighted the importance of investing in research for a lasting solution to the FAW infestation.      

Measures India is taking to tackle the crisis

Entomologist with the National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources A N Shylesha, who was the first to confirm there was a FAW infestation in India, recently said, they are recommending farmers use both chemical pesticides and bio-pesticides as he considers,  “India's temperature and atmospheric conditions are ideal for the spread of FAW.”

Delhi-based South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC) has just launched a project SAFFAL to safeguard agriculture and farmers against FAW in India.  

SABC Founding Director Bhagirath Choudhary told Dhaka Tribune, “Fall Armyworm will affect Bangladesh in two ways; first, the prices of imported maize will increase due to subdued supply and higher demand for maize from Fall Armyworm-affected countries in Asia and Africa. Secondly, maize farmers in Bangladesh will be more vulnerable to Fall Armyworm as the country presents congenial climate conditions, 'hot' and 'humid' for the pest to multiply.”