Malawi’s new reality: Fall Armyworm is here to stay – Part 1

This blog series examines the current state of the Fall Armyworm outbreak which has spread across nearly the whole of Africa. In Part 1, we take a closer look at the damage, especially on the maize crop, in Malawi as well as the immediate response. In Part 2, we consider why a short-term response alone is not enough, and consider options for medium and longer-term strategies for dealing with this and other potential pests and threats to Malawi’s food security.

 Part I: Scale of the Fall Armyworm problem

By now, anyone with a link to agriculture in Africa has likely heard of Fall Armyworm (FAW), a pervasive agricultural pest native to South and Central America that has ruthlessly worked its way across nearly the whole of the continent, after arriving in west Africa in early 2016 and making its way south of the Sahara and into Malawi by December of that same year. FAW spread quickly due to its short reproductive cycle and ability to travel long distances within short spaces of time in the adult (moth) stage (see FAW maps, Economist 2018).

Once in Malawi, FAW received significant attention as one of the newest threats facing Malawian smallholders and the nation’s food security as a whole, following a devastating cycle of natural disasters in the past two years. While FAW feeds on more than 80 plant species and is known to negatively affect cash crops like cotton in Salima, its attack on staple crops like sorghum, millet, and especially maize—Malawi’s primary staple crop and food source—is especially worrisome.

According to Dr. Jean-Pierre Busogoro, an agricultural scientist with the European Union delegation in Lilongwe, Malawi’s maize dominated mono-cropping system unfortunately provides the ideal conditions for pests like FAW to expand and flourish. Monocropped areas are more susceptible to aggressive pests like FAW, as pests can move more rapidly through uniform plant tissues and populations, wiping out full plots. In contrast, diversified or intercropped fields tend to slow, and in some cases, block the progression of pests such as FAW by providing a barrier of other non-compatible plant tissues that may not be edible to the pest, as well as a potential dilution effect.

In other words, Dr. Busogoro says, “A healthy crop resists pests better than a stressed crop.” Intercropping is just one component of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system that promotes a healthy, resilient, and nutrient-rich crop environment which contains pests’ natural enemies.

Damage from FAW in Malawi has been significant, and the Malawian media has been buzzing with estimates of the exact area affected. According to Dr. Albert Changaya, Controller of Agriculture Extension and Technical Services at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development (MoAIWD), the latest estimates suggest that 382,000 hectares of maize, sorghum, and millet have been affected nationwide, impacting more than 1 million farm families. Roughly 5% of last years’ dry season (non-irrigated) maize was lost to FAW – this year the figure is expected to rise to 10%, according to the MoAIWD.

However, statistics on area alone can be misleading, according to Dr. George Phiri, an entomologist by training and Assistant Representative for Programme at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). To assess the severity of the FAW problem, Phiri said that infestation rates, which can be obtained by scouting fields and empirical yield loss assessments, are needed to understand what percentage of a plot or crop is actually damaged by the pest. Infestation levels vary dramatically across the country, surpassing 80% in some hotspots. Based on these infestation rates the Government of Malawi has prioritized pesticide distribution as an immediate response.

Dr. Phiri also stressed that the basic economics of pesticide use tell us that it is only economical to spray when between 10 and 20 percent of plants are infested. Farmers must be trained to scout their fields and assess the severity of the damage, and make their own decisions about how best to handle the pest. And in many cases, that won’t be with pesticides – the cost of which is generally prohibitive for smallholders who in any case do not traditionally apply pesticides on maize in the field. According to the fourth Integrated Household Survey (IHS4), only 2.3% of all plots had either herbicides or pesticides applied in the 2015/16 agricultural seasons.

While the Ministry and development partners have provided some pesticides for free to farmers, chemicals can only be one part of the solution. According to Jean-Pierre Busogoro, “There is no single solution for FAW control. We need to understand the interaction between pest and crop, and we need an integrated approach.” Rational pesticide use will also help protect human and environmental health, as many of these chemicals are highly toxic and aren’t always applied as they should be – with proper protective gear, dilution and handling.

Fortunately, the Government of Malawi has developed a detailed FAW Action Plan that acknowledges these risks and endorses the use of an Integrated Pest Management approach. For example, this might include biological control using natural enemies– predators and parasitoids as well as pathogens – and the use of pheromone traps to monitor potential FAW outbreaks. Dr. Changaya says that research into natural enemies for FAW, and the use of botanical pesticides such as those derived from Neem and Tephrosia, will also be important components of the IPM approach. However, significant amounts of additional funding and support are needed. Changaya also stressed the need to collaborate with international partners with more experience in dealing with FAW, and hopes to send MoAIWD delegates on an educational trip to Brazil.

Ultimately, Dr. Changaya says, knowledge dissemination to farmers is the top priority. At the moment, farmers throughout the country are receiving differing types of information from a host of organizations working in the field. A more strategic and unified response is needed to identify which strategies work and where. From frontline workers to farmers, there needs to be a critical mass of end-users who can quickly and effectively detect and deal with FAW in order to control it in the long-term.

In Part 2 of this blog, we explore options for medium and long-term strategies to address FAW and to protect Malawi against future pests and agricultural threats. IFPRI Malawi wishes to thank Dr. George Phiri of FAO, Dr. Albert Changaya of MoAIWD, and Dr. Jean-Pierre Busogoro of EU, for their expert contributions to this blog series.