Sifelani Tsiko Senior Writer
A plague of fall army- worm that has spread to all the country’s provinces has infested nearly 150 000 hectares posing a serious threat to the country’s major staple food crop — maize, preliminary findings of the Agricultural Technical and Extension Services (AGRITEX) show.
AGRITEX plant expert Rutendo Nhongonhema told plant and animal disease experts who met recently in the capital to discuss the spiralling fall army worm outbreak which is destroying maize crops and posing a major threat to food security, that a total of 148 489 hectares had been infested so far out of the total national maize hectarage of 975 913.
This is about 15 percent of the total national maize crop.
“This is our preliminary assessment and we are yet to verify the total figures. Fall armyworm infestation are hovering around 6 percent for most provinces while the national average is 15 percent,” she said.
“In addition to this, about 2 000 hectares of the sorghum crop has been infested across the country. The exercise is still on-going and we will have fully verified figures soon.”
The current outbreak has been confirmed as that of a different species of armyworm — known as the “fall armyworm” (Spodoptera frugiperda).
The first report of the fall armyworm in Zimbabwe was in 2016. First reports were from Bubi district in Matabeleland North.
Reports from AGRITEX indicate that the pest has affected maize in all the country’s 10 provinces affecting hundreds of hectares of maize and pastures. The outbreak — reported in all the country’s provinces has raised fears that hundreds of hectares of maize and pastures could be destroyed if appropriate measures are not taken.
Excessive moisture has also added to the woes threatening the country’s food security position. Mashonaland West was the hardest hit with 14 645ha affected out of the 157 721 planted, followed by Midlands 11 030 out of 198 124ha, Mashonaland East (10 026 out of 155 645ha), Manicaland (9 648 out of 151 709ha), Mashonaland Central (7 630 out of 133 577ha), Matabeleland South (3112 out of 41 122ha) and North (650 out of 42 812).
Early last month, the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) warned that in the absence of proper control measures, the voracious fall armyworm pest could cause extensive maize yield losses, estimated between $76 million and $191 million in Zimbabwe.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Government and various partners have been working together to support smallholder farmers to fight the pest which is threatening the livelihoods of millions of people.
Nhongonhema said AGRITEX in partnership with FAO and other partners had managed to conduct trainings for agricultural extension workers, farmers, to form Command Agricultural Taskforces and to distribute chemicals, sprayers and protective clothing.
She also said her department also undertook an aggressive campaign to raise awareness among the people through the media, shows and field days. Publicity materials were also printed and distributed.
A total of 5 119 agricultural extensions workers were trained while about 635 921 farmers were trained out of the targeted 1 837 174.
Major challenges that were encountered included lack of information.
“Most farmers still cannot positively identify the fall armyworm,” Nhongonhema said. “For instance, they can’t tell the difference between the fall armyworm and the stalk-borer and African armyworm hence wrong control strategies by both staff and farmers are common.
“However, training has helped a lot and more farmers are now aware.”
Other plant crop experts bemoaned the lack of funding support for the fight against the pest. The funds remain insufficient to specifically address the pest threat,” said one expert. “More resources are required. The Government must come out in the open and pour more money to fight the pest. It’s a food security issue that requires more attention and financial support.”
Some said the price of chemicals was beyond the reach of the majority of poor farmers.
“The full adaptation dynamics of the pest are still to be understood,” said Obert Maminimini, an FAO crop expert. “The scaling down of regional and national level action plans to community or farm level has been limited. Investment to manage to the pest has been met with rather limited success. We need to do more to promote communication and advocacy.”
Chemical control is very expensive and out of reach by most farmers and experts estimate that the cost are about US$100 per hectare against a yield of 0,7 tonnes per hectare. This brings the cost to the farmer to about US$273 per hectare, something most experts fear will make the farming of the crop enviable.
An International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) plant expert said there was need for integrated pest management strategies to combat the fall armyworm.
“We need to conduct more research to identify sources of resistance to the fall army worm,” she said. “We need to work together with all partners identify possible sources of resistance for both our open pollinated varieties and hybrids too.
“We have sourced some varieties from our partners in Mexico which we are trying here in Zimbabwe. We are optimistic that we are going to come up with crops that resist the fall armyworm.”
In addition, she said, there was need to develop an artificial screening facility to help conduct more research.
“We need to continue breeding and to deploy fall army worm resistant maize varieties which could offer farmers options within the overall integrated pest management strategy,” she said.
Other plant experts said there was need for resource mobilisation for vehicles, fuel, sprayers, chemicals and protective clothing to support smallholder farmers. The early distribution of effective chemicals, training of extension staff and farmers, improved collaboration between research institutions and partners, information dissemination as well as the exploring of alternative methods to fight the pest was also critical, the plant experts noted.
The fall armyworm pest was first reported in Africa in 2016. Native to the Americas, the fall army worm can feed on 80 different crop species, including maize — Africa’s major staple food consumed by more than 300 million on the continent.
The voracious pest has since spread to more than 30 African countries, including Zimbabwe and most other countries in the SADC region posing a significant threat to food security, income, and livelihoods. Within the SADC region only Mauritius and Lesotho have not been affected.
Plant experts say in order to combat the spread of the armyworm, the Government requires to strengthen monitoring and surveillance including eliciting the support of Community — Based Armyworm Forecasting (CBAF) units in various parts of the country.
They say early detection is key to sound management of the pest.
“The sudden appearance of armyworm, makes it overwhelming for crop protection authorities that need to react urgently during the short time that is available for control operations,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation regional said.
“The armyworm needs to be controlled during the early days of its life to reduce the rate of recurrence. The fall armyworm in particular, represents major concern as it is reported that it can have 10 to 12 cycles and hence could continue recurring following the first spray.”
According to a 1997 study by plant and crop experts, infestation during the mid to late whorl stage of maize development caused yield losses of up to between 15-73 percent when 55 percent of the plants were infested with the fall armyworm.
A staggering US$1,1 trillion worth of agricultural products are traded internationally each year, with food accounting for more than 80 percent of the total, according to a 2015 FAO report. Plant and crop experts say failure to monitor the spread of plant pests and diseases can have disastrous consequences on agricultural production and food security for millions of poor farmers. They say preventions are the first line of defence against plant pests and diseases.
This, they further say, has also proven the most cost effective ways.
FAO estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of global crop yields are reduced each year due to the damage wrought by plant pests and diseases.
“The fact that the fall armyworm is a new pest to the region poses extra challenges as it will take a bit of time before farmers and other stakeholders understand how to manage it,” said the FAO regional office.
“FAO stands ready to work with governments and farmers to strengthen their capacity in responding and ensuring sustainable management of these transboundary pests.”