The fall armyworm, unknown in Southern Africa until December 2016, is now among the pests that our grain producers have to contend with this season and perhaps more to come.
It is native to the Americas but was spotted in West Africa early last year before it spread to Zambia last December, then to Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa. Governments spent tens of millions in trying to contain it, but because it was discovered midway through the summer agricultural season, it still was able to destroy crops, particularly maize, on large swathes of land in the region, threatening food security.
They were successful in managing the pest but did not eradicate it, therefore it is now a resident, albeit unwelcome, of our region.
The worm is very difficult to detect and contain, more difficult than its African cousin, the armyworm. It burrows into the centre of the host crop and into the cob itself destroying it completely. Brazil spends a staggering $600 million controlling it.
The fall armyworm grows to a length of about four centimetres. Apart from eating crops, it can be cannibalistic, eating competitors such as the African variety.
The adult has a brown or gray forewing, and a white hind wing. Males have more patterns and a distinct white spot on each of their forewings. They also develop dark spots with spines.
They eat up all plant material they encounter, like an army, leaving their victims on the ground. The pest completes its life cycle in 30 to 90 days depending on the season it grows. They mainly eat maize, but have a taste for sorghum, millet, rice, wheat and sugar cane as well.
To reduce its impact on our agriculture sector as we move into the 2017/18 farming season, we urge farmers to always scout their fields for the pest for earlier detection. If they detect the pest early enough, they can take measures to curb it before it spreads further and before the crop reaches its vegetative stage when the fall armyworm normally strikes.
Farmers also need to have budgets set aside for possible invasions by the pest. If they have money set aside, or appropriate pesticides in place, their response time is faster than in an event where they start looking for money to buy a pesticide when their crop is already under attack.
The Government, through its structures on the ground and up, needs to put in place a robust early warning system and be always ready to hear reports of invasions and be ready to move in swiftly before the damage caused by the pest increases.
Farmers must be educated on how to protect their crops against possible invasion and damage arising from the fall armyworm. They must be educated on how to identify it, how it looks, the appropriate times to scout their fields and what measures they should take as soon as they spot it.