Food shortage fears as worms, weeds attack farms

Christine Ndigwa, who has been growing maize for 20 years, shows how fall armyworms have attacked her crop. [Mercy Orengo, Standard]

The Mt Kenya region is staring at a food crisis after armyworms invaded several farms.

The situation has been compounded by a mysterious weed that is fast spreading.

Farmers in Nyeri, Meru and Murang’a counties are now worried following the discovery of the pests and weed that have attacked food crops.

Surveillance teams have been set up to monitor the situation that is threatening to get out of hand.

In Nyeri, the county government is battling to control the spread of the destructive fall armyworm moth.

Agriculture Executive Robert Thuo said the worms, first reported in Trans Nzoia County in March, were detected in the county on June 5.

“The pest is spreading rapidly and has potential to cause 100 per cent loss of a wide range of crops including maize, rice, millet, sorghum, wheat, cabbages, onions and bananas. It was first detected in this region by agriculture extension officers in Othaya, Tetu and Nyeri Central sub-counties,” he said.

Large numbers

The pest, said to have originated in North and South America, occurs in large numbers. The caterpillars cause severe damage, especially in cereal crops such as maize and rice.

Mr Thuo said the pest, which has had devastating effects on maize production in Trans Nzioa, is most destructive during the larval stage, when it is feeding on a plant's soft tissues.

“The adult moth is active at night and can fly 35-100km per day. That is why its spread is likely to be fast and affect large areas in a short time,” he said.

The caterpillars damage the leaves and stems of young maize plants, resulting in small dot-like holes or large ragged and elongated holes on the plant. They give the impression of maize leaves that have been damaged by hailstones.

Thuo said they were sensitising farmers on pest identification, monitoring and control.

“We are encouraging farmers to use appropriate pesticides. They should also diversify and focus on traditional high-value crops such as sweet potatoes and arrowroots."

In Murang’a, armyworms have been found in the lower parts of Maragua and Gatanga, and are destroying maize crops.

Farmers have called on the county government to supply them with chemicals to fight the armyworms.

Yesterday, John Waihenya, head of the agriculture extension services, said teams had been dispatched to monitor the situation.

Initial reports

He said initial reports showed only some farms had been attacked but the rains had helped to reduce the destruction.

“In the investigations, out of 100 plants, less than five had been attacked by the worms. We pray there is rain that will help to stop the attack,” said Mr Waihenya.

Two weeks ago, Agriculture Executive Albert Mwaniki said the county government would supply farmers with chemicals to fight the worms.

Meanwhile large tracts of land in Igembe, Meru County, have been invaded by a weed locals termed strange.

The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and Born Free Foundation are working to reclaim 500 hectares the weed, identified as Lantana camara, has already occupied.

“The weed is posing a serious threat to the Meru National Park and farmlands,” said Born Free Kenya Director Tim Oloo.

He said agricultural production in the area would suffer further if the weed, an invasive species that chokes other plants, was not dealt with immediately.

“We are involving the local community to stop its spread. It has the potential to cause extensive damage in agricultural areas,” said Mr Oloo.

The foundation and KFS are planting fast-growing trees in the affected areas.

[Story by Lydiah Nyawira, Phares Mutembei and Boniface Gikandi]

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