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Farmers fear loss of maize to fall armyworm

Farmers fear loss of maize to fall armyworm

  • Experts say insects came to stay for a long period

Covering the majority of Africa in the last 12 months, the Fall Armyworm (FAW), is feared to have spread fast infesting major crops, mostly maize. In the worst case this year, farmers could lose up to half of their crops, The Reporter has learnt.

The uninterrupted spread of the insect in Ethiopia was first noticed around April in the Southern Regional State. Then from the period of April to August, intensities of the plague have been further identified by agricultural extension experts and farmers. Since then, the Fall Armyworm has made Ethiopia its home and it is feared to adversely affect some 10 million smallholder farmers who cultivate maize for a living.

During an interview with The Reporter on Wednesday, Ian Chesterman, chief of party with Feed the Future Ethiopia Value Chain Activity, a program among others the USAID oversees in the country said that, Oromia, Amhara and Tigray regional states have also been affected since August and September 2017. Hence, the rapid infestation and spread of the Fall Armyworm is likely to endanger farmers, as the experiences in West Africa show similar trends. Within the second year of its infestation in Ghana, FAW has spread to 70 percent of the crops and caused some 40 percent losses in crop yields. According to Chesterman, that is a critical warning to Ethiopia.  

“The highest level of infestations was seen in the Southern Regional State last year. Figures quoted are around 30 percent of maize crops”, Chesterman said. That figure in Oromia, while at full extent of the infestation, was reported to be at 25 percent and in the Amhara Regional State, it is reported to be at 20 percent, while in Tigray, it is at 12 percent, Chesterman said.

According a report that was released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources last year, the widespread of FAW has reached Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz regional states, and out of the 1.1 million hectares of farms covered with maize, close to 150,000 hectares have so far been affected.

Furthermore, Chesterman said that the insect came to stay and won’t go away anytime soon. “Most people in the country thought that the pest was coming as a tourist but now they realize that it’s a citizen. It came here to stay and is now a new permanent pest in Ethiopia,” he said.

Despite the efforts, coping with the spread of infestations last year, there is a growing fear that it will intensify this year.  According to Chesterman, his team and other organizations have concerns over the rapid infestation of the insect. Irrigated crops among others will have a very high level of infestation this year. “In some cases, we are seeing 50 to 60 percent infestation and serious damage on irrigated crops,” Chesterman said.

However, that may not hold true for the entire crop seasons, as Chesterman pointed out that there are natural mechanisms such as African armyworm, heavy rains and handpicking help deter the spread of the insect during the main crop season.

However, it is yet to be projected as to how much crops and how many farms could be affected, since monitoring systems in the country are very poor to predict such outcomes. The likes of Chesterman argue that lack of accurate information on economic damages for last year are not yet determined.

Chesterman recommends two effective approaches while coping with the insect. First approached is early warning preventive system. Farmers need to practice good agricultural practices. Poor plantations, low quality seeds, lack of fertilizers, bad soil management, lots of gaps in the farm fields require serious attention. Second approach is an Integrated Pest Management and timely application of pesticides.

Last year, the National Disaster Risk Management Commission reported that 7.8 million people were in need of emergency food assistance and this basic necessity is feared to be exacerbated by the infestation of FAW. Back in March, similar outbreaks of FAW have been reported in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Malawi, Rwanda, Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. A UN crisis report indicated that some 330,000 hectares of maize have been infested, so far.

This week the US embassy in Addis Ababa distributed a scientific guide on FAW management in a document, in which, projections have been quoted to show if proper control measures are not implemented, the pest could cause extensive loss to maize yield. This is estimated to be between USD 3.6 billion and USD 6.2 billion per year across the 12 major African maize producing countries including Ethiopia.