Detected in Karnataka, this pest may spread across SE Asia, impact millions

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Fearing its devastating impact on the food security of millions, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has warned about the growing risk of fall armyworm (spodoptera frigeperda), an invasive agricultural pest, spreading across South East Asia.     

Detected first in the Shivamogga district of Karnataka in May this year, fall armyworm devoured the entire maize crop sown in the demonstration field of the University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences (UAHS). Native to the Americas, fall armyworm has already spread across Africa, where it was first detected in early 2016. By early 2018, all but 10 (mostly in the north of the continent) African states and territories have reported infestations and the pest has affected millions of hectares of maize and sorghum.  

Its impact can be ascertained from the fact that this insect has the capacity to fly over long distances (100 km per night) and ravage crops all year round given the region's favourable tropical and sub-tropical climate, which means there are always crops and weeds around that the fall armyworm can feed on. The pest has been found in other parts of Asia as well.  

"Fall armyworm could threaten the food security and livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers in Asia as the invasive crop-eating pest is highly likely to spread further from India, with South East Asia and South China most at risk," FAO said in an advisory on Tuesday. 

Fall armyworm can eat maize and some 80 other crops, including rice, vegetables, groundnuts and cotton.

"Fall armyworm could have a devastating impact on Asia's maize and rice producers -- mostly small-scale farmers who depend on their crops for food and to make a living. This is a threat that we cannot ignore," said Kundhavi Kadiresan, FAO assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific. 

In Asia, where small-scale farmers cultivate about 80 per cent of the region's farmlands, rice and maize are among the most produced and consumed cereals.

Over 200 million hectares of maize and rice are cultivated annually in Asia. China is the second-largest maize-producing country in the world, and over 90 per cent of the world's rice is produced and consumed in the Asia-Pacific region.

Given FAO's knowledge and coordination role towards a sustainable management of fall armyworm in Africa, it is offering its expertise to farmers and governments in Asia who will quickly face decisions about the best ways to manage the pest. 

"Much of what FAO has already done in sub-Saharan Africa to help farmers and governments better monitor and mitigate fall armyworm damage can also be applied in Asia. This includes recommendations on pesticide management, monitoring and early warning, and a practical guide for farmers and government extension workers on how to best manage the pest," said Hans Dreyer, director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division.

FAO has urged the government to provide policy and technical advice about the best management options for farmers, especially smallholder farmers, including on pesticide management. Also, farmers' education and communication would be the key to controlling the spread of the fall armyworm pest.   

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