Virginia Tech scientists rally international coalition to stop a pestilent ‘army’
The fall armyworm – devastating to corn in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, and elsewhere – is subject of an emergency workshop July 14 through 16 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to slow the pest’s advance in Africa and prevent its penetration into Southern Europe and Asia.
A pest native to both North and South America, the fall armyworm first landed in western Africa and reached eastern Africa a year later. The pest has the potential to destroy more than $3 billion in corn throughout Africa and trigger food shortages next year, scientists say.
Virginia Tech’s Muni Muniappan witnessed damage in April in Ethiopia, where he met with struggling farmers.
“The worm is voracious, and it must be controlled soon before the damage spreads,” said Muniappan, an entomologist and director of the Virginia Tech-led Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management.
A team of researchers from the lab is partnering with the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya, to produce the workshop, which gathers stakeholders and experts from five countries (the United States, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, and Tanzania) to respond to the threat to the region’s food security.
The United States Agency for International Development, which funds the lab at Virginia Tech, is also sponsoring the workshop, where experts will share techniques with farmers to deploy against the pest.
On the continent less than two years, the fall armyworm has created a path of devastation. Its quick spread and heavy destruction make it difficult to control, leaving farmers few options but to handpick caterpillars off their plants.
The pest’s targets include 80 different plant species, some of which are valuable food crops. Many countries in East Africa experienced a sharp drought last year, which resulted in a humanitarian crisis from which millions of farmers in the region are only now recovering, according to the International Association for the Plant Protection Sciences.
The Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab team is coordinating research in East Africa seeking ways small-scale farmers can mitigate the pest’s impact. The lab is working to identify biological agents – such as a natural enemy like a wasp – to control the fall armyworm by destroying the pest’s larvae.
Scientists are studying traps made from burlap “gunny sacks” that employ such natural enemies. Other methods under study include establishing plants near rows of crops that can keep the pest contained.
The workshop should allow the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab to fine-tune its research objectives, Muniappan said. He also hopes the pest, which can fly hundreds of miles once it transforms to become a moth, can be contained before it becomes widespread.
The Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab is a project of the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs.
Written by Dana Cruikshank and Stephanie Parker