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Invasion of the armyworm mealie snatchers

Feb 13 2017 05:01
Mandi Smallhorne*

OUT in the North West province, beyond Magaliesburg, you can see little mealie plants. They’re shorter than you’d expect for this time of year, but hey, the rains came late.

South Africa's Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) is expected to forecast the planted area at 2.6 million hectares, up 33.5 percent from the 1.947 million hectares planted last year, according to an average estimate of five traders and analysts polled by Reuters.”

Whoop-whoop-whoop! A bumper crop. Maybe it’ll even bring down the price, which poorer South Africans could really do with, having suffered (and hungered) through the record prices of last year.

And then along comes the false armyworm, like its 30-odd brother species, a plague of Biblical proportions. The extensive damage caused by the larvae of this moth species has been compared to that of a locust swarm. It munches on the tassels, the mealie ear and bores into the stalk. It was first reported in Nigeria last year. It’s been munching its way through West Africa and now it’s here in southern Africa.

In Zimbabwe, some farming regions have lost as much as 70% of the crop. In Zambia the authorities have been waging war, dusting crops with army planes and engaging in intensive surveillance so the authorities can jump on any new outbreaks.

Then just a week or so ago, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) confirmed that the false armyworm is in Limpopo, and in the news we heard that a farm just outside Tshwane has lost virtually its entire crop, despite spending heavily on pesticides.

READ: Alien armyworms invade maize in drought-hit southern Africa

Africa has its own indigenous and pretty devastating species of armyworm already: okalombo, kommandowurm, or nutgrass armyworm, outbreaks of which are bad enough. The false armyworm is an invasive species from the Americas which probably arrived in Africa as eggs in corn imports. It is a major pest in USA corn fields, but it has never broken out of the Americas – until now.

Which is not just bad news for the maize farmers; this insect is polyphagous – it eats many things: “The preferred hosts are graminaceous plants, including economically important crops such as maize, millet, sorghum, rice, wheat, and sugar cane. Feeding damage is also observed on other major agricultural crops such as cowpea, groundnut, potato, soybean and cotton.”

Like many invasive species, this beastie is resilient and reproduces extravagantly: “…these caterpillars may eat all the available food and then crawl in great armies to adjoining fields. After feeding for 2 or 3 weeks, the larvae dig about 20 mm into the ground to pupate. Within 2 weeks, a new swarm of moths emerges, usually flying several miles before laying eggs.” Oh goody.

Fortunately, DAFF seems confident it can beat the new arrival and has recommended two pesticides to combat it. This will, of course, impact on the price of production… oh, and don’t place your faith in a genetically modified solution, that’s been tried in the USA and already the moth has begun to develop resistance.

In cases like this we turn to the scientists at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) for effective and lasting solutions. Years ago, I did a series of articles on invasive plant species, and developed a great deal of respect for the people working there. They do a lot of agri-centred research, including a focus on finding useful predator species to control invasive flora and fauna, like the cochineal insect used in the Kruger National Park to reduce certain species of prickly pear.

Protecting our agricultural resources – in effect, our food security as a nation – would seem to be a very important job to which government devotes a serious whack of resources, time and thought. But it doesn’t seem so. When American Foulbrood, a killer of bee colonies, entered the country, there was, as I recall, one person dedicated to bees in ARC – and let‘s not forget, bees provide us with upwards of R16bn annually in irreplaceable pollination services alone.

Look back over the last few years and you’ll see the budget allocation for ARC is slight, seldom beating inflation, with the parliamentary grant increasing by a paltry 1% – while the salary component of their costs alone (one of the operational costs covered by the grant) had increased by 11%.

Search SONA17 for mentions of drought, climate change, water, agriculture or farming. “Our farmers went through a difficult period last year because of the drought,” that was about it, from what I read (no, I didn’t watch – couldn’t bear it). Mention was made of government drought assistance, but Agri-SA is questioning whether it was anything like enough; indeed, if it was as much as stated.

I’d like to see an overarching, thoughtful plan, addressing threats to agriculture (like future droughts, loss of fertile soil, invasive plants and animals); long-term strategies for supporting necessary shifts to different staple foods and different regions for farming as climate change bites; imaginative and effective plans to support and train new farmers; support for farmers trying new tactics to regenerate soil and save water (regenerative or sustainable agriculture); conservation of water and water catchment areas for growing food and drinking rather than mining and other uses.

And I’d like to see the three basics without which we cannot live – air, water and soil – front and centre in the minds of all government departments, from mining to human settlements to finance, rather than little Orphan Annies at the back of the queue for budget, resources and meaningful attention.

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.


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mandi smallhorne  |  opinion

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