Scientists warn that parts of southern Africa already hit by record droughts now face another potential food crisis because the invasion of a crop-eating pest, known as the “fall armyworm”.
Global experts are meeting in the Zimbabwean capital Harare to come up with a plan to combat it.
The name is a bit misleading. It is not actually a worm, but a hungry caterpillar that eats crops before turning into a moth.
It is a new pest, not to be confused with the similarly named “African armyworm”, which has been present in the region for many years.
It is native to the Americas, but experts are not sure how it reached Africa.
One theory is that the eggs or the caterpillars themselves hitched a ride in some imported produce, or even made it on board commercial flights.
South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique are the chief suspects among southern African countries, according to the FAO.
The presence of fall armyworm in Africa was first reported on the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe in January 2016, it says.
Other research groups have also reported it in parts of West Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana.
But the governments of Zimbabwe and South Africa are the only ones to have publicly confirmed that they have a problem with this specific pest.
We don’t know exactly, because many affected countries have not provided data yet.
Finding out the number of hectares affected and the intensity of the pest is one of the main aims of the emergency summit in Zimbabwe, the UN says.
South Africa, the region’s biggest maize producer, has confirmed the destruction of crops from the pest in six different provinces.
The Zambian government has said that 130,000 hectares (321,236 acres) of land have been affected, with the prime suspect the fall armyworm.
Insecticides. Chemicals can be used to deal with the pest in its early stages, but after that it becomes much harder, and some populations of fall armyworm have developed resistance, according to experts.
Other approaches involve digging trenches, employing natural predators, like birds, to eat the worms or even burning the crops, according to David Phiri, the senior FAO official in southern Africa.
Zambia, thought to be one of the first places hit by the outbreak, used army planes to spray affected areas with insecticides, which has enabled some crops to recover, an official at the national disaster agency told the BBC.
The warning from the FAO is a bleak one, suggesting that things will probably get worse before they get better.
“It has just started – even those countries not currently affected should prepare themselves for possible infestations,” Mr Phiri told the BBC.
Scientific institutes have also raised the alarm, describing the pest as a major threat to food security and agricultural trade in the region.
However, if there is a “co-ordinated approach” from countries across the region, then that’s where the solution might lie, Mr Phiri says.
“We cannot eradicate it, but we can find ways of managing it.”
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