Agronomists strive to contain a brand new American pest

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Agronomists strive to contain a brand new American pest India's acute farm crisis has just been worsened by an American pestilence called fall armyworm and farmers, biologists and agronomists are scrambling to contain the attack. 

First detected in a field of maize in Karnataka in May, Bangalore’s National Bureau of Agriculture Insect Resource (NBAIR) confirmed presence of fall armyworm in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and now, in Maharashtra. 

Fall armyworm is native to the Americas and was first reported to have reached Africa in 2016. Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (Cabi) estimated in September that improper management of the armyworm could cost 10 of Africa’s major maize producing economies between $2.2 billion and $5.5 billion per year in lost maize harvests. 

Though known primary attacking maize fields, the fall armyworm also eats an additional 186 plant species, including sorghum and soya beans. Already, Maharashtra has detected a suspected fall armyworm attack on sugarcane in the state. 

“Armyworm has spread to almost all countries in sub Saharan Africa. Eradication is not feasible, so management is now required on a continuing basis to limit losses. The same situation is likely to occur in Asia,” said Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) in an emailed response to ET. 

Though the country’s research institutes have been tracking the pest and trying to control its spread, government authorities seem to be downplaying the potential threat from the pest, which if not nipped in the bud, can cause large scale losses to farmers. An additional reason is that it could be a political sensitive issue with five states going to polls in the next few months followed by Lok Sabha elections. FIRST SIGHTED IN KARNATAKA MAIZE 

Two scientists of the University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences, Shimoga, Sharan Basappa and Dr CM Kalleshwaraswamy, accidentally detected Fall Armyworm FAW on maize crops in their experimental fields in May. Genetic analysis confirmed it to be fall armyworm, a pest unknown in the subcontinent. 

Later, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research(ICAR) too detected and confirmed its presence. The pest is dreaded due to its high migration power and the capability of its female to lay about 1000 eggs in its lifetime. 

After the case was reported in Karnataka, entomologist Ankush Chormule, who works with a private multinational company, realised that the pest can be a threat to Maharashtra as well. He wrote an article about the threat of fall armyworm in Maharashtra in a Marathi newspaper. Chormule and a group of his friends run a Facebook group of farmers with a few lakh members. 

“Ganesh Babar, a farmer from Solapur, who is part of our Facebook group, suspected that the pest on his maize crop could be fall armyworm and informed us. We visited the farm, collected samples and took them to NBAIR, which confirmed it was fall armyworm,” said Chormule. 

CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER 

So far large scale losses haven’t been reported from anywhere in India. However, on some individual farms, the effect has been devastating. 

“The yield of my maize crop can decline by about 25%,” said Ganesh Babar, the first farmers on whose farm fall armyworm was detected in Maharashtra. However, government agencies have reported losses up to 70% in some of the fields in Karnataka. If the pestilence spreads, it is difficult to eradicate. 

“Fall armyworm can cause significant yield losses if not well managed. Fall armyworm is a dangerous transboundary pest with a high potential to continually spread due to its natural distribution capacity and trade. Farmers will need significant support to sustainably manage fall armyworm in their cropping systems through Integrated Pest Management,” said the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO): According to FAO, in Ghana the disease has caused up to 100 percent yield loss in heavily infested maize fields apart from increased production cost, while Zambian government had spent more than USD 3 million on chemicals and seeds. African countries and international agencies have spent more than USD 10 million to contain fall armyworm related losses. 

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By BOA Bureau