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Let’s fight the pests that hit agriculture and livelihoods the hardest

In Africa, plant pests (includes diseases and weeds) represent a serious threat to food security in all its dimensions – availability, accessibility, utilization and stability. They reduce the quantity and quality of the produce, disrupt livelihoods and affect the human health. As a result, pests exacerbate poverty, hunger, malnutrition and incur significant expenses on governments and partners for the management of pests. It is not uncommon to divert funds, which otherwise could be used for other development programs.

In the Eastern Africa subregion, there are a number of pests, which persistently affect smallholder farmers. Among the most damaging is the Fall Armyworm, which continues to spread across Africa and other parts of the world like wildfire. The Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International has estimated that in the absence of proper control methods, the Fall Armyworm has the potential to cause maize yield losses of 8.3 to 20.6 million tons annually, valued between USD 2.5 and USD 6.2 billion only in twelve of Africa’s maize-producing countries. Fall Armyworm affects more than 100 plants but maize is its preferred host plant.

Currently, the pest has reached over 40 countries in the continent. Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, from the Eastern Africa region, are all included on the list. The worm will continue to inflict serious damages upon African smallholder farmers, unless it is prevented and controlled. There is no chance of eradicating this pest and therefore governments, partners and farming communities will have to live with it, managing its spread and adverse impacts.

Another pest, which severely affects the smallholder farmers is the Desert Locust. The pest is considered the most dangerous of all migratory pest species in the world. It threatens people’s livelihoods, food security and the environment. The Desert Locust migrates in swarms across continents and poses a threat to one-tenth of the world’s population. This pest is a menace to agricultural production in Africa, the Near East and Southwest Asia. A single locust can eat its own weight (about 2 grams) of plants every day. One million locusts can eat about one ton of food each day, and the largest swarms can consume vegetation enough to feed tens of thousands of people in one year. Currently, this pest is inflicting damage in the Eastern Africa nations, including Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. For example, swarms entered Ethiopia and settled in the breeding sites in Afar, Amhara, Oromia and Somalia regions, covering more than 174 square kilometer and are consuming approximately 8 700 tons of green vegetation every day.

Increased movement of people, animals, plants and products across borders and climate change are the main causes for the emergence and spread of pests. There are indications that countries with weak prevention and control systems are much more vulnerable than others who have the system in place.

In order to combat the invasion of pests, national governments and partners should stablish and maintain a timely, cost-effective and environmentally friendly prevention, detection and early warning systems. Establishing such systems can provide relevant information and analysis for effective decision-making and early action.

Strengthening the capacities of national plant health organizations, extension systems as well as community-based learning systems such as farmers’ field schools should be a top priority in order to cope with these threats effectively. Developing capacities among all parties, including farmers and development agents, on the design and implementation of pest prevention and control measures is an important step to take for robust responses. In so doing, it is essential to mobilize resources in advance, anticipating the potential impact an emerging pest can have on both life and livelihoods.

In conclusion, a failure to monitor the spread of plant pests can have disastrous consequences on food security for millions of poor farmers. Learning from experience, prevention is the first line of defense against plant pests. Recognizing this, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) introduced the Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which is an ecosystem approach to crop production and protection. It combines different management practices to grow healthy crops sustainably and minimize the use of pesticides. FAO has been supporting member states to enable them apply this system to ensure that crop pests are well managed in an integrated manner, before they cause major harm to smallholder farmers, whose livelihoods are fully or partially dependent on agriculture.

Together with partner institutions, FAO can take early action to empower national governments to prevent the introduction and spread of plant pests towards maximizing agricultural production. The year 2020 has been declared the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH 2020). This will be a great impetus for all parties to increase awareness on the need for monitoring, reporting and early actions against plant pests.

Ed.’s Note: David Phiri is the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Subregional Coordinator for Eastern Africa and Representative to the African Union and UNECA. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Contributed by David Phiri