Funded by Norway, the approaches are set to help farmers protect their crops against the devastating pest while improving livelihoods and the environment.
Smart Mwape, a 65-year-old farmer in Chongwe, Zambia was surprised to find strange caterpillars as he strolled past several maize plants in his field one morning. They were either on the leaf or inside the leaf whorl. Unlike others, these looked peculiar and, over time, he noticed that his fellow farmers were also complaining of caterpillars invading their crops. He bought pesticides and sprayed but it yielded little results, leaving most of his crops damaged.
‘I was worried that the caterpillars eating my crops would affect my harvest. I decided to buy pesticides and sprayed but the insects were resistant. I felt frustrated,’ said Mwape. ‘With time, most of my crops were damaged resulting in low yields at harvest yet I had spent a lot of money on pesticides.’
The caterpillar Mwape found on his maize crop is the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), a pest native to the Americas. The pest was first detected in West Africa in 2016 before subsequently spreading across the continent leaving a trail of damaged crops. In its place of origin, the pest feeds on at least 350 plant species. In Africa, fall armyworm consumes a wide variety of cereal crops, particularly maize, a major staple grown by most farmers. Hence, if not controlled it could negatively affect food security, incomes and progress made by millions of smallholder farmers.
For Mwape, who has been farming from a young age, the outbreak is like nothing he has ever seen in terms of crop damage and resistance to pesticides. He now fears that his plans to develop his farm are under threat if alternatives to manage the pest are not found soon.
‘This fall armyworm is a bad pest,’ he said. ‘I hope a solution can be found quickly otherwise my plans of increasing activities on the farm risk getting shattered. I have always dreamed of one day moving away from rain-fed agriculture to having a borehole to grow vegetables, winter maize and rearing chickens so that am able to make enough income to live a better life.’
Rhett Harrison, a landscape ecologist and conservation biologist with ICRAF based in Zambia, is leading a 5-year research project in Zambia and Malawi funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation to develop smallholders’ strategies for fall armyworm management in Southern Africa. The project will examine the effectiveness of ecological options, a measure which is intended to a deliver low-cost control methods to 180 small-scale farmers.
‘Our target is to make pesticides redundant and use nature to do the work for us,’ said Harrison. ‘Many available pesticides are either banned in many countries or of lower quality. Agro-ecological approaches offer an alternative, which is both safer and better for the environment.’
Through the project, researchers are trying to alleviate the impact of fall armyworm on smallholders in Sub-Saharan Africa through low-cost pest control strategies based on ecological approaches to reduce crop losses, improve soils and create a general improvement in the livelihoods of the farmers. The approaches will be tested through experiments at three levels of soil management: conventional tillage, minimum tillage and mulching. There will be four intercropping treatments: 1) with no intercrop; and 2) intercropping with velvet bean; 3) ‘lablab’ (Lablab purpureus); and 4) locally selected legumes.
Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have exploited the pest-control services of organisms living in and around their ﬁelds. However, the use of agroecological approaches gained recognition in the management of fall armyworm around the late 1980s owing to its ability to trigger three essential elements of integrated soil fertility to support healthy plants: 1) increased biodiversity at field; and 2) landscape scales; and 3) specific interventions to encourage natural enemies that feed on the pest.
Gilson Chipabika, an agricultural entomologist at Zambia Agriculture and Research Institute (ZARI), said the research will examine the management of the invasive pest in low- and high-density tree landscapes.
‘Zambia has three ecological zones that fall in the range of low, medium and high rainfall,’ said Chipabika. ‘Within these zones, our study will look at what farmers grow and create a unique and diverse approach in tackling fall armyworm in each region. Most chemicals being sold on the market are not sustainable and hence there is need to look at breaking away from practices that pose danger to the environment and human health.’
Agriculture is the major occupation in Zambia. In rural areas where the majority reside, subsistence farming is practised. Most farmers, like Mwape, own a small piece of land on which they grow maize, groundnuts, cassava, millet, sweet potatoes, and other crops to sustain their livelihoods. For many farmers, it is traditional for them to secure their food and income once a year during the rainy season to see them through to the next farming season. Reducing production costs will greatly assist many farmers to remain food secure, save on spending their ‘annual income’ on pesticides and enable them to invest in other productive farming activities.
The fall armyworm project is funded by Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and being implemented by ICRAF, Zambia Agricultural Research Institute in Zambia and Department of Agricultural Research Services in Malawi.
Harrison RD, Thierfelder C, Baudron F, Chinwada P, Midega C, Schaffner U, van den Berg J. 2019. Agro-ecological options for fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda JE Smith) management: providing low-cost, smallholder friendly solutions to an invasive pest. Journal of Environmental Management 243:318–330.