Dr. Yubak Dhoj GC and Dr. Muniappan Rangaswamy
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has taken thousands of lives and continues to threaten economies worldwide. At the later stages, the threat has been at high alert in Nepal. The global pandemic has the potential to cause especially graveim pacts for those already living in poverty.
Both human disease outbreaks and pest outbreaks cause serious food security concerns on a national, regional, and global scale. Crop losses due to the impact of human diseases occur in-part due to factors such as morbidity, debility, and absenteeism that lead to reduced labor productivity.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Malaria is one of the leading causes of death – with reduced labor activity caused by the disease, it is estimated that outbreaks of Malaria have resulted in nearly 70 percent crop losses. If measures are not taken to protect crop health amidst the COVID-19 crisis, global as well as national food insecurity will be rampant. This will hard hit the nations that are already in deficit with the major food commodities.
Fall armyworm– a threat to food security
Fall armyworm (FAW), Spodoptera frugiperda, is a moth native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas that have now spread globally. It has established one of the major transboundary pests. In its caterpillar stage, it can cause significant damage to plants unless there is natural control, good agronomic practices, or resistant varieties in place.
FAW prefers maize but can also feed on more than 80 other crops, including wheat, sorghum, millet, sugarcane, vegetable crops, and cotton. Once established in a country, FAW is not possible to eradicate or control to stop it from spreading – an adult can fly up to a hundred kilometers in a single night.
The invasion of the Fall armyworm (FAW), a pest native to the tropical and subtropical Americas, is synchronous with the rise of COVID-19. FAW was accidentally introduced to Nigeria in 2016, and since then, has spread to all Sub-Saharan African countries.
It reached southern India by 2018, most of South and Southeast Asia by 2019, and Australia by 2020.Unfortunately, FAW invaded Nepal in May 2019.Estimated to cause maize losses of 21-53 percent, FAW threatens the food of millions. The pest is difficult to eradicate once it establishes as adults can lay up to 2,000 eggs, moths can fly long distances, and the pest feeds at all plant stages.
While it mostly affects maize production, FAW is known to infest over 350 plant species. If it would have been inadequately managed, could cause over $5.5 billion a year in maize losses. The progression of the dreaded FAW pests, the picture in Nepal seems very scary.
The challenge ahead
Farmers need significant support to manage FAW sustainably in their cropping systems through Integrated Pest Management (IPM) activities. Once it is invaded and established, it cannot be eliminated. Considering its potential level of the damages, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), Regional Office, Bangkok have launched FAW management activities in the Asia and the Pacific Region including Nepal through the Regional Technical Cooperation Programs (TCPs) since 2019.
FAO country office, Nepal, and Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD) of the Government of Nepal are rolling out various activities in the country. Major interventions include technical backstopping to the capacities of the farmers and technical staff of the various stakeholders including Government staff, networking through the establishment of the national responding bodies headed by the staff of the Ministry, research and teaching counterparts, INGOs (CIMMYT), NGOs, farmers representatives, and private sectors.
Activities related to the identification of the pest insect, use of Fall Armyworm Monitoring and Early Warning System (FAMEWS), promotion of the biocontrol agents with the joint action of the Provincial Ministries. The pest abundance has been kept at the Economic Threshold Level (ETL), however, continuous actions are needed.
In this endeavor, MoALD has also given ample emphasis in the joint action of FAO on expanding the FAW control activities in the country. The IPM Innovation Lab, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)has established research and extension activities for FAW management in Nepal, Kenya, and Tanzania. Continuous efforts are underway to curb the FAW incidence in Nepal.
Despite the efforts, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences have significantly delayed activities such as capacity building, production of natural enemies to be released against FAW, and field trials.
Farmers are reluctant to take up field operations, as they risk contractingCOVID-19 working with others, and purchasing necessary supplies. There is also a labor shortage for farmers’ fields and limitations in marketing farmer produce. With farmers constrained, food production falters because pests flood in. It isn’t just maize that FAW attacks, but numerous crops – rice, sorghum, vegetables – that farmers grow to feed their families.
In Nepal, maize is the second most important staple food crops, while it is grown throughout the hills, mid-hills, and terai for both human consumption and poultry feed. In Nepal, FAW doesn’t simply threaten food insecurity but could lead to a major collapse of existing jobs in the livestock industry. This will have greater impacts on food and nutrition security.
Management options are available
There are numerous options for managing FAW in the developing world. Physical control involves practices such as handpicking caterpillars from a plant. Cultural control can reduce pest incidence through crop rotation, mixed cropping, and other agronomic practices. Mating disruption through the release of pheromones is also a valuable practice for preventing FAW from mating.
The Nepal Agricultural Research Council and other institutes can contribute through conventional breeding of crops resistant to FAW as well as adopting resistant crop varieties. Chemical pesticides can be used, as well as numerous biopesticides. Biocontrol, or the release of natural enemies, can offer long-term prevention. To effectively combat FAW, management solutions must be suitable to local conditions.
Chemical control is sought after by farmers for quick suppression of the pest; however, regulations on pesticide registration, availability of protective equipment, and safe use are not progressive. Solutions such as physical control are not feasible for large plots of land. Albeit this practice fits well in family managed to farm. Two natural enemies that attack the eggs of the pest – Telenomus remusand Trichogramma– show up to 70 percent parasitism of FAW elsewhere. They are currently been reared in Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC) and the technique used to mass-multiply and release is easily transferrable. Similarly, fungal antagonist Metarhizium anisoplie can be mass-produced in NARC and the Department of Agriculture (DoA), which can be transferred to the private sector. Biocontrol demonstrates an environmentally-friendly, economical, culturally-acceptable solution.
A Way Forward
FAW’s economic impact has yet to fully reach Nepal, and neither has the spread of COVID-19. However, a cautious approach is needed to control both. By activating the National Fall Armyworm Working Group led by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD), Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), USAID, iDE, private sectors, and others, Nepal can protect crops threatened by the merging influx of FAW and COVID-19.
Facilitating supplies such as seeds, fertilizers, pheromones, both bio- and chemical-pesticides, and other inputs to farmers is also crucial to maintaining a vibrant local food production and supply chain during the pandemic.
Continued production of natural enemies of fall armyworm, ensuring precautionary measures such as social distancing and wearing masks, is pertinent so that farmers do not lose time in mitigating the spread of the pest in their fields.
Existing virtual hubs such as Facebook and WhatsApp that foster networks of farmers interested in IPM and other crop protection services will help combat FAW with the latest information available. Many food-exporting countries will probably reduce the supply amidst the rise of COVID-19 – hence, locally maintained food production and pest prevention in Nepal could have a major impact in preventing food insecurity.
Dr. Yubak Dhoj GC is former secretary of The Government of Nepal and currently serving as Senior Agriculture Officer, FAO, Bangkok and Dr. Muniappan Rangaswamy is Director, IPM Innovation Lab Virginia, USA.