Whenever there is news reported about Africa in the west it tends to be bad news. I therefore don’t really relish writing this article. I’m following the trend. However, what amazes me is that apart from an article in the FT and in The Independent the mainstream media [I accept that the Ugandan Independent isn’t ‘mainstream’ in the UK…] doesn’t appear to be at all interested in this particular story (to be fair to The Guardian they picked it up back in February). Nonetheless, I feel that any profile of this issue is warranted. This is the story of the Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), not really a worm at all, but a moth, the caterpillar of which is ravaging crops across sub-Saharan Africa. Here are just a few tweets from the last 48 hours:
So, what exactly is the problem?
In short, the species is working its way across the continent consuming thousands of hectares worth of crops. South Africa, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Zambia are amongst the worst affected but around 20 countries are affected in total at the moment. The Fall Armyworm is mostly associated with North and South America, where it has been a pest for many years. In the United States it is counted as among one of the most difficult agricultural pests. It is a relatively new problem for Africa however, the worm having been first reported in Sao Tome and Principe in January 2016. African farmers have suffered from the African Armyworm (Spodoptera exempta) before, but this particular outbreak (of the American species) is unfounded and potentially devastating.
Maize is the main victim, as well as soybeans, groundnuts, sorghum and several other staple crops. The issue is that the caterpillars will eat everything in a particular area before moving on. Well over 300,000ha of maize (perhaps as much as 400,000ha) have already been destroyed in southern and eastern parts of the continent (this includes 130,000ha in Zimbabwe, 90,000ha in Zambia, 50,000ha in Namibia and 15,000ha in Kenya) and the Armyworm continues its advance.
The Armyworm is an incredibly successful species. Adult moths will lay up to 2000 eggs during its 2 week life cycle and it has the capacity to cover many kilometres in a single day. Further, it thrives in hot, dry conditions such as those that parts of the continent have been experiencing recently. The caterpillars will hatch after 4 days and then immediately start feeding on the leaves of the affected plant. By week two they will have turned their attention to the rest of the plant, which in the case of maize will mean the ears and cobs.
Based on the amount that Brazil spends on controlling the species each year, it’s expected that up to $600 million could be the cost required to control the problem. However, governments are not panicking. For example, in Rwanda Dr Gerardine Mukeshimana, the minister for agriculture and animal resources, has made it clear that 95% of crops are unaffected and so food security should not be significantly maligned.
One thing to pick out from all of this is the bizarre nature of what the conventional media thinks is suitable news. If this was a European problem, it would be all over the news for weeks. However, most of us haven’t even heard about the Fall Armyworm (I certainly hadn’t until it came up in conversation a few days ago). If it becomes a long-term issue then it could affect food prices, but otherwise it will continue to be perceived as a problem for ‘other people’.