MADISON, Wis. — In Africa, roughly 18 million tons of maize, which has the potential to feed tens of millions of people, is affected by fall armyworm annually. The economic losses as a result of the pest are estimated at up to $4.6 billion per year.
Controlling the pest is essential, but so far, most solutions have relied on chemicals that are harmful to both humans and the environment. The search is now on for nontoxic options that have the potential to be adopted more widely and that can offer a more sustainable solution.
“The reality is the fall armyworm is never ever going to go away,” said Shachi Gurumayum, Africa lead at AgBiTech, a company specializing in sustainable pest control. “The better we learn to manage it, as quickly as possible, the better it will be for our farmers.”
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The invasive fall armyworm was first discovered in Nigeria in 2016 and quickly spread to the majority of African countries since then.
The moth reproduces quickly and can travel long distances — up to 62 miles in one night. Its larvae wreak havoc on crops such as maize, rice, vegetables, sorghum, and sugarcane and Gurumayum does not see an end in sight.
“They are called armyworms for a reason,” Gurumayum said. “They march like an army.”
Since the arrival of the fall armyworm, chemicals have overwhelmingly been used to control it across the continent, said Buyung Hadi, agricultural officer of integrated pest management at the Food and Agriculture Organization. This is concerning because many farmers don’t have access to adequate personal protective equipment to shield themselves from exposure to harsh chemicals. It also harms consumers, who eat the crops, as well as the environment.
“What we're doing is harvesting nature's own mechanism of controlling this caterpillar.”— Shachi Gurumayum, Africa lead, AgBiTech
An article published this year in The Lancet found that of the pesticides currently used across Africa to fight fall armyworm, 13 were highly hazardous, 26 were high risk, and 17 were lower risk.
Chemical insecticides that are both efficacious and less harmful to humans and the environment are typically more expensive, Hadi said.
For farmers who can’t afford pesticides, some are individually picking the caterpillars off their plants by hand, said Florent Clair, head of partnerships for sustainability at UPL, a leading crop solutions company. Others have used techniques such as putting ash, sand, and soap on their crops, Gurumayum said.
To avoid harm to human health and the environment, the agriculture sector is working to find nontoxic solutions to fight the pest rather than relying on harmful chemicals.
People within the sector agree that in order to promote nontoxic solutions, it's essential to train farmers on their benefits and how to use them, as well as to make them affordable and encourage regulatory systems to adapt so that it’s easier to roll out these products in countries.
With all this in mind, AgBiTech recently finalized an agreement with UPL to distribute Fawligen across Africa. This is a product that contains a naturally occurring virus that exclusively targets and kills the fall armyworm. According to the company, this is the first fall armyworm-specific biological control that is organic by nature, as the virus is extracted from the caterpillars themselves — the company harvests the virus from over a million dead caterpillars on a daily basis.
After a field is sprayed with it, the caterpillar ingests the virus, which eventually kills it. Other caterpillars, which are cannibalistic, eat the deceased insects, and in turn, become infected. The dead caterpillars then liquefy on the plants, which are also eaten by other caterpillars, creating a multiplier effect.
“What we're doing is harvesting nature's own mechanism of controlling this caterpillar,” Gurumayum said.
Because the virus only targets fall armyworm, it also protects beneficial insects in a field, helping to maintain the ecosystem, by allowing those insects to continue to help to control fall armyworm infestations, he added.
The distribution agreement allows these companies to provide the product across the African continent except for Nigeria, by registering the product with national authorities. This registration process is currently underway in a number of countries including Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Senegal, and Zambia.
Other biopesticide options for fighting fall armyworm include the use of an ingredient from neem leaves, the use of pheromones, fungus, and bacteria-based products.
FAO has hosted farmer field schools to teach farmers how to make their own concoctions to fight the pest, such as using crushed neem leaves and hot peppers. But this is challenging because it requires repeated training and there are no quality controls around what the farmer produces, Hadi said.
For Fawligen, the biggest challenge to the rollout is creating awareness around the product with farmers and others involved in the agriculture sector, Clair said. UPL will do this through training farmers and extension workers. The training often includes demonstration plots in local languages. This is particularly important for farmers who can’t read, he said. The company is also hoping that external donor organizations will help in its efforts to raise awareness with farmers.
“Changing smallholder farmer habits is sometimes difficult,” Clair said.
Last year, AgBiTech launched a partnership between the United States Agency for International Development, FAO, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, and Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International in South Sudan to train farmers in using the product. These farmers have shown a 63% increase in yield compared to untreated plots and the pilot is being scaled to reach thousands of farmers this season, Gurumayum said.
“As technologies evolve, and as more and more of these alternatives become available, African regulatory environments also need to evolve.”— Shachi Gurumayum, Africa lead, AgBiTech
Another hindrance to adoption of biopesticides is the perception of effectiveness. Most farmers are familiar with using chemical pesticides made of nerve poison that kill quickly, Hadi said. They spray their fields and the next day they see dead insects. But many biopesticides work more slowly, leading some farmers to think the product isn’t effective, he said.
A survey conducted in Kenya found that while biopesticides were readily available, for farming more generally, only 10% of farmers in the survey used these options, despite half of respondents having awareness of these products.
Affordability and registration
While FAO cannot comment on specific products, Hadi said that having commercially available biological pesticides to fight fall armyworm in markets across the continent is a good thing because these products will be standardized, proven effective and the companies must submit data to governments on human and environmental safety.
“Because it's commercial, there is an economic incentive through the agro dealership to continue making it available at the local level,” Hadi said.
With these biological solutions, the price must be kept low, so that widespread adoption is possible. Some biopesticides are more expensive than generic chemical pesticides but local manufacturing of these products would likely help reduce costs, he said. Fawligen, for example, is not produced on the continent; it is produced in the United States.
Companies also face challenges in entering biological tools in markets because national regulatory processes and systems are largely designed for chemical regulation, Gurumayum said. This means that companies spend time and resources on bureaucratic hurdles that aren’t relevant to their product, he said.
“As technologies evolve, and as more and more of these alternatives become available, African regulatory environments also need to evolve,” he added.