Alien pest infestation
Ian Chesterman is the Chief of Party for the Feed the Future Ethiopia Value Chain Activity, a program funded by USAID. This five year program is supporting Ethiopia’s Agricultural Growth Program (AGP) with a focus on linking farmers with markets and agribusiness opportunities. Chesterman has three decades of experience in promoting agricultural commercialization activities with smallholder producers, primarily in East and Southern Africa. In Ethiopia, he also served as Technical Director for the five-year USAID Agribusiness and Trade Expansion Program, where he developed and supervised technical assistance and marketing intervention tools for farmers and counterparts in the coffee, oilseeds, pulses, and horticulture value chains. Chesterman holds a Master’s degree in Land and Water Management and has a background in leading private-sector agricultural business. Apart from Ethiopia, he has worked in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe at various capacities ranging from senior agricultural advisor to horticultural director in the USAID funded projects. Following the alarming spread and infestations of Fall Armyworm in Ethiopia last year, Chersterman fears the worst is yet to come. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter talked to Chsterman to learn about the impact of fall armyworm, how quick it spreads and what possible coping mechanisms are there. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Originally the fall armyworm is from the Americans. Unfortunately, its quick expansion and increased level of infestation has caused lots of panic in Africa. How does this insect come to threaten the continent to begin with?
Ian Chesterman: the original base for the fall armyworm is the Caribbean and Central America region. That is where it is a native pest. But, over the past several hundred years, it established itself in the US and was given the name Fall Armyworm. Fall is an American term for autumn, a season that comes right after summer. This is the season when the fall armyworm is at its peak in the US. It spread into Africa in the early 2017. Hence, since about a year ago, nobody was absolutely sure how it travelled across the ocean to Africa. Experts are thinking maybe it came through ship consignments or cargo or possibly by aircraft. But, the spread is not known yet. What we do know is that it was first reported in West Africa in 2017 and then spread very quickly. Within a space of 12 months, it has covered the whole continent. Now, how does something as insignificant as inspect pest spread that quickly? Well, the fall armyworm starts its life as a moth. The small moth, about the size of your thumbnail, has an amazing ability to fly long distances; up to 150 kilometers in a day with good winds. For that reason, it can travel widely. It perpetuates its life cycle by laying its egg on crops that it feeds on. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars and the caterpillars go through various stages, about seven stages to be exact, each time getting bigger and bigger. Eventually, the largest caterpillar goes to the ground and becomes pupa before it reemerges as a moth. Over the past 12 months, the insect has covered the vast majority of the Africa continent and it has become a very serious new pest in the agriculture scenery.
Yes, the insect has become a very serious pest and we have seen its potential for devastations in Africa, last year. What waits Ethiopia in 2018? What is the current statuses regarding the fall armyworm?
When we look at the historical spread of the insect in Ethiopia in 2017, it was first noticed in the Southern Regional State around April. Then gradually, from April to August, the pest was identified by agricultural extension experts and farmers in maze crop: particularly from the Southern Regional State, Oromia, Amhara and Tigray Regional States. From the figures produced by the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ extension staff, what we know is that there was a similar spread and infestation levels in all the regions. Last year, the highest level of infestation was recorded in the Southern Regional State. The figures quoted showed around 30 percent of all the maze crops infested. In Oromia, even at the full level of the incident, it was at 25 percent. In Amhara, it was 20 percent and in Tigray it was around 12 percent. I think when it was first noticed people thought the insect was a tourist. They now recognize it as a citizen. It is here to stay. It is a new permanent pest in Ethiopia. It likes Africa because it is worm. It doesn’t have cold winters. It doesn’t kill it. Hence, it has some natural advantages and that is why it spread so quickly. I think we are conscious of two things. One is yes we did see it spread in Ethiopia last year. And yes the infestation levels were highest where it first it started. Going forward to 2018, we are concerned as a USAID. Many organizations share this concern. It has had the chance to settle into the landscape. Secondly, we are seeing it still at very high levels of infestations especially around irrigated crops now. There are irrigated crops in Southern region and some in the south of Oromia. These provide what we call an oasis, a small group of very satellite maze crops. The rest of the neighborhood is dry. There is not much for the worm to feed on. Therefore, irrigated crops naturally concentrate the pest damage. We are seeing in some cases the infestation rates reaching 50 or 60 percent causing serious damage on irrigate crops.
But does it affect crops during the main cropping season?
That doesn’t mean the same levels of damage will occur in the main cropping season. Because, there are also signs that natural enemies of this pest are actually starting to emerge in the ecosystem. There are natural enemies to the worm which are basically other similar pests. There is African armyworm which has been here for many years. The fall armyworm is its cousin, a newly arrived relative from overseas. The natural enemies are now establishing ways of eating and attacking the fall armyworm. The other factor that we think will help considerably is the heavy rain itself, which would act as a natural deterrent. Heavy rain has the ability to destroy and kill small worms. Irrigated crops don’t give them any protection but on the main crops as we go into the main season, we would also expect the influence of rainfall to help reduce the level of infestation.
How serious would the infestation get? What are the estimates for this year?
Everybody is asking the same question. But it is hard to tell. The current monitoring system is not sophisticated enough to be able to predict this. We are providing support to the Ministry to improve the monitoring system. Information will allow us and all the other organizations including the unions, the crops and the farmers to target their efforts; where should we need to be focusing our campaigns? We are supporting that scouting. But there is a concern. When you look at the experience, for instance in Ghana, where we have another USAID project dealing with worm, and share information on the matter. They have experienced infestation rates as high as 70 percent and caused a loss as high as 40 percent. It is extremely serious in dry conditions, where the worm is not been hammered by the rain. Farmers could loss up to a third or even more under the worst case scenario. That’s a warning to Ethiopia. Yes, last year it was newly arrived and people felt a combination of handpicking and spraying pesticides was somehow successful. But, the danger will be if we get complacent. We are now seeing different factors. We have irrigated crops. We have a carryover. The fall armyworm has now adapted. It has spread to all the regions. It has the potential to become more serious this year.
I have been looking at some of the financial figures. There are estimates claiming between USD 3 billion to 6 billion in crop damages in Africa. In addition to that, it was reported that 30 types of crops has been infested. What are your thoughts on that?
I will take that question to mean two issues. We have not seen any accurate estimates of the economic damages on Ethiopia, last year. There are some estimates which have been produced and released for Africa. It shows that there is startling cost to Africa. The same cost pro rata can occur in Ethiopia. What we do know in Ethiopia is that maze is the largest crop affecting 9 to 10 million smallholder families. Maze is the by far the biggest cereal crop in terms of food security. Hence, as an economic and food security threat, the insect and its impact is extremely serious. That is why people including ourselves are mobilizing to deal with it. More information needs to get out. More accurate information and effective communication is important to have and disseminate.
What can be advised by way of coping mechanisms? You just mentioned handpicking and spraying was successful, last year. But in some parts of the country that was not as effective as it was anticipated. This year, if the pest becomes very alarming, what additional coping mechanisms would you advise?
I think we are looking at two approaches. The first one is prevention. That boils down to a very simple message. What farmers need to do is to improve their farm; to follow good agricultural practices. Many times, we have talked about fall armyworm infesting crops that are poorly managed. Poor planting, lots of gaps in the field, low quality seed, lack of fertilizer, bad soil management is conducive to the pest. If you can grow a good, strong and healthy crop of maize, that is by far the most important preventative measure. The emphasis need to be to farmers on basic maze extension. Get your basics right. When we are looking at dealing with the pest, spraying and handpicking are the two approaches suggested. But, we are looking at more overall approaches as well; which is integrated pest management. This does include spraying and handpicking or cultural control methods. But, there are other mechanisms the integrated pest management includes. At a framer level, trainings can help improve monitoring of the levels of the pest. Our focus is not on telling farmers when to spray; but to identify periods when they don’t have to spray. If it is about to rain to night, don’t spray. The rain will be much more effective than the pesticide. If you can plant early in the season, that will help. If you plant other alternative crops, which the worm likes to feed on, that will reduce the damage to your maize crop. Even when spraying is necessary, there are alternative chemicals that are less toxic to the people applying them, yet more effective. We are training professional sprayers selected from communities. The pesticides will be effective when professional sprayers are doing the job for farmers with reasonable fees. There are areas we are working with science institutions at the higher level. There are some signs of maize varieties which show some resistance to the fall armyworm. We are not talking about hyper sensitive GMO seeds. We are talking about nationally bred varieties that show resistance. The research is ongoing. It will take some time.
From where the fall armyworm originated, we don’t hear that much noise of damage but in Africa the impact is extreme. Hence, what gives it the opportunity to quickly spread and infest many crops? Is it being a smallholder farmer or what else?
I think anything we suggest has to be pragmatic and realistic in the context of smallholder farmer in Ethiopia, their landholdings and their annual income. You must propose solutions that are realistic and affordable. But I don’t think we as a country should panic. There is a risk that this year the level of infestation of fall armyworm could be higher. But, the evidence suggests that the fall armyworm like any other insects goes in cycles. The experts we talk to have the opinion that probably once in every five or six years, it will be bad year for fall armyworm. There are others years where there is good rain and the natural enemies will take care of it. It will be in a normal controllable level. I think we have to distinguish this. If we are facing a higher infestation rate, we must mobilize more resources. But, it is also not going to devastate the maize crop and wreck it all together. This thing has natural controls and farmers will adjust to it. Maize after all is a low value crop. It is a staple crop but it is a low value crop. Farmers need to improve their yields. They need to grow more valuable crops, attractive to them and their livestock.
The fall armyworm came at a time when some 7.8 million people are in need of emergency food assistance. In addition to that, the fall armyworm has bobbled that problem. How concerned is the government by this and is it making the required efforts to control the impacts of the insect?
Our relation with the government in terms of intervention regarding the fall armyworm is to collaborate with the fall armyworm national taskforce which is coordinated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources. There is also crop protection directorate under the same ministry. They are mandated to take the lead role. The ministry has the overall responsibility. They have developed a strategy and they are widely networked with other organizations such as USAID, FAO and others. We are in our small ways, supporting the national strategy, coordinated under the ministry and we are in close consultation with them. Our briefing note has been shared with them. We are closely collaborating to support some interventions in their broad strategy. I think there is an effective strategy. But, we also need to work with the media to effectively communicate with farmers. First of all, there needs to be a right technical messaging.
In your opinion, what will be the immediate priority in the coming few months to curb the infestation of fall armyworm from Ethiopia and the rest of Sub Saharan Africa?
The first one is mass awareness. It is important to reinforce the messages from last year. The information should get out to the farmers. It is very necessary to shake of any sense of complacency. But, the messaging works if is coming two ways. One is to take messages from farmers. What challenges they face, what concerns they have and what they recommend should be heard. Farmers inherit enormous supply of ideas and they have the knowledge of what works and what will not. But I don’t think there is a well-developed two-way communication to incorporate messages of farmers into the institutional systems. We have to look at interactive communications.
You said the fall armyworm has come to stay. Hence, what possible mechanisms can be suggested as a medium or long term solution to reduce the impacts?
I think, we are confident that it will find a natural balance except for those bad years. There are basic things farmers can do to help themselves. There is a lot of work going on with the USAID projects or in other organizations. You can double yield with the use of better quality seeds, or with best farming practices. Roughly, 20 percent of the maize is lost after harvest; spoiled during storage. Some technologies are helpful to reduce that. For instance, PP bags are reducing the 20 percent post-harvest loss to five percent. These are things not connected to fall armyworm but farmers have the opportunity to minimize the economic, technical or farming damages from fall armyworm. We need to put fall armyworm in a more measured context. Everybody talks about fall armyworm as if it is a devil. Then we are losing the focus on good farming and post-harvest losses. One message is constantly crowding out the others. We need to talk about value chain approach to maize. Production, storage, marketing or other factors should be practiced in a right manner. Yes, we are facing a challenge from fall armyworm. But we can deal with that.