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Experts tip farmers on how to deal with invasion of fall armyworms

By Robert Amalemba | Apr 12th 2022 | 5 min read
By Robert Amalemba | April 12th 2022

Margaret Anyona Amariati inspects her farm at Emulundu village in Lurambi. Fall armyworms have invaded her three acres of land. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Margaret Anyona Amariati, a farmer in Lurambi, Kakamega does not know where the fall armyworms (FAW) that have occupied her farm came from, just like scientists who are assessing the damage caused by the pest, a native of the American tropics.

She also fears that using pesticides will not add value to her farming venture as she has spent a lot tilling the land, buying seeds and paying people to plant.

“It would be a zero-sum game for me to buy expensive pesticides to spray my three-acre maize farm because the amount I put in could be equal to or even more than what I will get when I sell the produce,” she says.

She is among hundreds of farmers from Western and parts of Rift Valley whose farms have been invaded by the worms.

Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (Kalro) head in Western Dr Caroline Kundu attributes the FAW outbreak in the region to the climate crisis saying there is an urgent need for mitigation.

Climate change era

“We are at the apex of farming under the climate change era. Ordinarily, we could be experiencing long rains but the rains came then disappeared ushering in favourable conditions for the breeding of the worms,” she says.

“The worst bit is that since it is a new breed of worm not like the African armyworms that is native to the continent, few farmers have the knowledge of how to get rid of them.”

Dr Kundu called on county governments to make efforts in educating farmers on the worms or expect drastic drops in yield.

“It is a desperate time for farmers which calls for enhanced measures. Farmers can also read on how to get rid of the worms,” she says.

Endemic to North and South America, the fall armyworms which first appeared in West Africa in January 2016 have hit the country just like many African countries with researchers still trying to figure out how they arrived on the continent.

The worms attack cereal crops like rice, sorghum, wheat and maize which is a staple food to at least 200 million people in the continent.

In 2017 the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) released a report titled Fall Army Worms: Impacts and Implications for Africa exploring the potential losses farmers in Africa face under the worms.

“Fall armyworms in Africa have the potential to cause maize yield losses ranging from 8.3 to 20.6 million tonnes per annum, in the absence of any control methods, in just 12 of Africa’s maize-producing countries,” says the report.

“This represents a range of 21-53 per cent of the annual production of maize averaged over a three-year period in these countries. The value of these losses is estimated at between US$2,481-6,187 million (Sh285 billion- Sh713 billion).” In a 2018 publication as Africa faced the armyworm crisis, the FAO a United Nations is a specialised agency that leads international efforts to defeat hunger and improve nutrition and food security offered some quick tips to farmers on how to overcome the worms.

The publication says that while it was difficult to completely eliminate the worms from fields, there were ways they could be prevented, monitored and acted upon.

It advises farmers to use high-quality seeds which should germinate well, be disease-free and be of the variety the farmer wants to plant as one of the preventive measures against the worms.

“Avoid late planting or staggered planting (plots of different ages). Female moths have a favourite stage of maize to lay eggs on. If your field is one of the few late-planted plots, all the female moths in a region will come to your plot, where they will lay their eggs,” says another preventive tip.

Farmers are also asked to increase plant diversity in their plots. The tip says that plants emit chemicals that can attract or repel FAW moths.

“If a plot of land has a mixture of varieties or crops, the adult moths may not land on maize plants to lay their eggs. Some plants that are unattractive to FAW moths are crop plants, such as cassava, but also include non-crop plants, whose sole function in the cropping system is to repel FAW moths from maize plants,” the tip on preventing FAW says.

Farmers are advised to visit their fields frequently to observe, learn, and take action beginning one week after planting and at least once a week.

While doing this, they should observe the general health of their cereals.

“Does your maize have a nice dark green colour (indicating good nutrition)? Do they appear moisture-stressed? Are there signs of damage (from FAW, other insects, or diseases)? Are there weeds (especially striga)? If there is FAW damage, then check 10 consecutive plants in five locations of the field,” reads the report on monitoring tips.

The tips however say that effective and sustainable armyworm management requires action. 

“One of the simplest actions that farmers can take is mechanically killing armyworm eggs and young larvae. This is best done as soon as possible, a week after planting. Eggs are laid in a mass and are easily found on maize leaves. These can be immediately crushed. Likewise, young larvae can be picked off the leaves, before they penetrate deep into the whorl. Some farmers feed the caterpillars to chickens,” says the action tips by FAO.

Farmers can as well, attract predators and parasitoids to eat the worms. Ants are especially an important natural predator of FAW larvae according to FAO.

They crawl up the plants, into the whorls, and drag out FAW larvae.

“Some farmers have found that they can attract ants to their maize fields by putting lard, grease from cooked meat, or fish soup into their maize fields. When the ants arrive in such farms, they find and eat larvae of the worms in the maize fields. Some farmers use sugar water to attract and feed the wasps that can eat the worms,” says the FAO action tips on the stubborn worms. 

Most farmers we talked to in Busia and Kakamega including Amariati of Lurambi did not have this knowledge.

In fact, their first thought in dealing with the worms was applying chemicals, which is not economically justifiable for smallholder farmers.

“Many pesticides kill farmers’ friends, those predators, parasitoids, and pathogens that can naturally kill a large proportion of FAW eggs and caterpillars,” says FAO.

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