Armyworm threatens African farmers’ livelihoods

By Stefano Virgilli — In third world countries, agriculture is a powerful field. It opens new jobs, raises income, and gives food security. Agriculture has reduced poverty in many rural areas where people work mainly in farming and many world organisations endeavour to raise awareness about the importance of agriculture. However, the development of agriculture in this areas highly depends on the influence of natural and environmental conditions and financial capabilities. Such circumstances add to the already tough economy and unstable economic situation, sometimes, making it difficult to survive the obstacles. For instance, if there is a problem, and the problem has a solution, a great concern is the affordability of that solution.
Since last year, the fall armyworms have attacked the corn fields from Ghana to South Africa. At first, the arrival of the pest has been confirmed in Ghana.
On February 3, South Africa confirmed the arrival of an army of caterpillars in the country. They eat the leaves and the stems, invade the fields in a large number, and are considered more dangerous than the native African armyworm. The caterpillars travelled to South Africa from Zambia where they affected more than 10 per cent of the farmed area.  According to the reports of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, they’ve reached Malawy, Mozambique and Namibia.
In an e-mailed statement, the organisation said that “If the pest damage aggravates, it could dampen prospects for good crop harvests that are anticipated in the current farming season.” They add that “the pest is known to cause extensive crop losses of up to 73 per cent depending on existing conditions and is difficult to control with a single type of pesticide.”
South Africa, the continent’s biggest grain producer started the battle against the crop-eating pest. The country still has not recovered from last year’s drought and the fall armyworm is contributing to the difficulties of the farmers.
In 2016, South African local growers produced 7.78 million tonnes of corn, which is less than the 9.96 million tonnes produced in 2015. Overall, it is a fall of 22 per cent, the lowest since 2007.
In 2015, the country also faced the lowest rainfall since 1904, which damaged crops and boost prices, making the country a net importer of corn for the first time since 2008. South Africa produces the white variety of corn — which is used to make food — as well as the yellow variety used as food for animals.
According to the Crop Estimates Liaison Committee, white corn production declined 28 per cent from 2015, and yellow corn declined 16 per cent, which is 3.41 million and 4.37 million tonnes respectively.
The committee said that there is a 14 per cent increase in sunflower-seed production to 755,000 tonnes, and a soybean production decline for 31 per cent, to exactly 742,000 tonnes from last year. In an interview, the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Senzeni Zokwana, said that the country is still left to estimate the size of crop damage.
Unfortunately, reports say that the fall armyworm could spread to Asia and the Mediterranean. In an emailed statement, Oxfordshire, a Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International, based in the UK said: “It can be expected to spread to the limits of suitable African habitat within a few years.”
The armyworm “could spread to tropical Asia and the Mediterranean in the next few years, becoming a major threat to agricultural trade worldwide,” the organisation said.
While still recovering from last year’s drought, South Africa’s local farmers in Limpopo struggle with the invasion of armyworms on their sorghum and maize crop. Their biggest problem — the affordability of the pesticides that might help with the pest invasion. In an interview, one of the farmers said to Reuters: “The drought is still with us and financially everyone is still struggling, so this is an enormous amount of money that has to be taken out to spray the pesticides.”
The farmer and his family hold a 4,000-hectare farm for the past 67 years, and he finds it hard to start the process of battling the fall armyworm because the prices of the pesticides — registered from the agriculture ministry — range from 200 rand ($15) to 600 rand per hectare. And the threat of the adult worm is alive, as it can produce new generation within a month.
In addition, another farmer worries about the severity of their future financial situation, especially if “the seed is destroyed or damaged” because “it gets taken off the price of our commodity.” Another concern besides the cost of the pesticides is the undetermined outcome of the pest on crops.
Therefore, the farmers and the governments are left in anticipation before the estimation of the damage this infestation has left on the crops and the economy in 2017.