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Fall armyworms’ last meal

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In 2015/16 agricultural season, Malawi was in the throes of disasters which left large swathes of the country in need of food aid.

It was a double-edged sword because, while floods destroyed most of the crop during the 2014/15 farming season, drought decimated plants the following season.

The 2016/17 season was supposed to be uneventful and talk of plenty even began to dominate conversations in public spaces. But it was not long before the nation’s bubble burst after reports emerged of crops ravaged by the fall armyworm.

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Farmers, particularly of the subsistence type, seemed ill-prepared to deal with it.

Such state of unpreparedness has been reflected in the many names the fall armyworm has earned since it emerged in Malawi. In some areas, they call it ‘Chamdothi’, in others they describe it as ‘mbozi zowoneka ngati ntchembere zandonda’; yet others call it ‘muononga’.

Such varied names are all testament to its destructive tendencies and the confusion it has brought in farmers.

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From pesticides to soap detergents and outlandish solutions such as ash, desperate farmers clutched at anything in their desperate bid to salvage what remained of their crop from the fall armyworm.

While some methods worked as they rescued crops from certain doom, others left farmers counting the cost of the destruction.

Early symptoms of the fall armyworms include ‘skeletonised’ leaves, heavily windowed whorls dotted with large amounts of faecal matter and loss of main leaves that manufacture plant food.

At a larger stage, the larvae of the pest consume huge amounts of leaf tissue, leaving it in ragged appearance like a tattered curtain.

Salima, Balaka and some districts of the Lower Shire were the hardest hit as the armyworm consumed everything standing in its way.

Malawi was by no means the only country that felt the wrath of the fall armyworm, whose origin experts trace to Brazil. Crops in several countries in Eastern and Southern Africa were equally decimated by the fall armyworm, which destroys crops in the grass family of maize, millet, sorghum, rice and sugarcane.

The doom and gloom aside, preliminary crop estimates for the 2016/17 growing season—which were released in April—showed that Malawi had suffered negligible damage despite the invasion of the fall armyworm.

The nation may have turned a corner and escaped from certain calamity, but potential harm posed by the fall armyworm has not disappeared as the search for a panacea to the pest continues.

Under the Agricultural Productivity Programme for Southern Africa, the Department of Agriculture Research Services — through Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station in Thyolo — has for the past three months been conducting trials on 14 pesticides that farmers can use to control the fall armyworm.

“Since it is the first time for Malawi to be affected by the pest, there has been no locally adapted means of managing it,” says Tifera Mankhwanda, assistant agriculture research officer at the research station.

He observes that climate change has brought about catastrophes such as the emergence of the fall armyworm, which can pose a threat to food security in Malawi.

Mankhwanda says the 14 pesticides are undergoing trials to evaluate their effectiveness in controlling the fall armyworm.

So far, nine are showing early promise, but he declines to disclose the chemicals that have failed the trial or those producing positive results.

“The chemicals are coming in as a last resort, but we are encouraging farmers to use cultural practices in controlling the fall armyworm,” Mankhwanda says.

He encourages farmers to adopt integrated pest management control methods such as close season, early planting, destroying residual materials from gardens and frequent weeding. He adds that farmers should scout their crops frequently as invasions by the fall armyworm can start as soon as the plant shoot has emerged.

Deputy Station Manager at the research station, Felix Chipojola, says the trials would help farmers and the country, as a whole, find effective pesticides for the fall armyworm.

“Farmers should not panic, we are doing all we can to identify the right pesticide to deal with the pesticide,” Chipojola says.

Mankhwanda, however, is optimistic that the nine pesticides showing promise would serve farmers and protect their crops from the pest.

As it were, the fall armyworm may have just had its last meal.

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