Countries with confirmed outbreaks can face import bans on their agricultural products because armyworm is classified as a quarantine pest. Calling for urgent action, scientists have warned that if the spread of the pest is not controlled soon, it could cause mass starvation in Africa.
The armyworm outbreak, which has affected the entire southern African region, came at a time when the region is still reeling from the effects of two consecutive years of El Nino-induced drought that affected over 40 million people, reduced food availability by 15 percent and caused a cereal deficit of 9 million tonnes. The UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, will meet in Harare on February 14-16 over an emergency response to the armyworm outbreak.
He explained that the Fall Armyworm is new to South Africa and there was no set pesticide at this stage but emphasised that this was being dealt with.
The fall armyworm, so called because it eats its way through most of the vegetation in its way as it marches through crops, is native to North and South America but was identified for the first time in Africa a year ago.
An armyworm in Barnabas Mabhena's hand that has damaged his maize crop at his field in rural Bubi, Zimbabwe, on January 26, 2017.
"This invasive species is now a serious pest, spreading quickly in tropical Africa and with the potential to spread to Asia", CABI's chief scientist, Dr. Matthew Cock, said.
Armyworm is known as the "fall armyworm" in the U.S. due to its tendency to migrate to the country in autumn. They have been known to destroy 90 percent of the crop in fields they infest.
Most farmers in the Americas have used chemical treatments to fight armyworm infestations with mixed results, CABI's research posited.
The American armyworm is also harder to detect and eradicate than the African worm.
South Africa has looked on track for a substantial recovery in corn output from last season's drought-affected levels, with Agbiz last week predicting a crop of 11,9-million tonnes, an increase of almost 60% year on year, and sufficient to produce a comfortable export surplus. "Damage reported in South Africa so far is mainly on yellow maize varieties and especially on sweetcorn as well as maize planted for seed production", the department of agriculture said in a statement.
The pest is spreading in southern Africa as the region is still reeling from the effects of a two-year drought that affected more than 40 million people, according to United Nations figures.