As Government scales up efforts to control an army worm outbreak that is damaging maize crops across the country, William Chifura wonders if the infestation will encourage a policy shift away from mono-cropping maize.
Maize – Zimbabwe’s primary staple crop – is under attack from fall army worms. The fall army worm is a migratory pest that rapidly moves through fields eating young plant stems at lightning speed, leaving devastation in their wake. It is estimated that 10 percent of Zimbabwean farms in six provinces have already been affected.
Maize dominates agricultural production in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries, in spite of its limited nutritional value. Other staple crops, such as millet, are far more nutritious, drought tolerant and less susceptible to pest outbreaks. Yet more than 90 per cent of smallholders rely on maize for income and food calories.
The current pest invasion could cause farmers in affected areas to lose 30 to 40 per cent of their crops. According to media reports, the army worm – which is native to the Americas – will continue to wipe out tens of thousands of acres of maize fields unless its progress is controlled.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the effects of the army worm invasion could be catastrophic for Zimbabwe.
The Government has declared the outbreak a national disaster and disbursed over US$3 million for pest control. Military planes have sprayed affected areas in an attempt halt the infestation. However, experts worry that the army worm’s capacity to burrow into the centre of maize plants will make it difficult to control the outbreak using pesticides.
Pest invasions come from a combination of ecological and climatic factors, such as weather patterns, mono cropping, the introduction of new species, or pest migration routes. Because the army worm jumps across borders, it is already being reported in neighbouring countries such as Burundi, Malawi and Zambia, increasing the challenge of controlling the infestation.
Interestingly, other crops such as cassava, millet and sorghum have been less affected. While the loss of maize crops to this infestation must be addressed, it is important to consider whether the country’s reliance on maize has contributed to the pest attack.
Since 2007, the Zimbabwean Government has spent an average of 80 per cent of its agricultural budget supporting the production of maize. The latest attack on the maize crop by army worms therefore highlights the need for the nation to diversify its crop production.
Greater diversity of foods on the farm and on the plate is something that is also urgently needed to combat hunger and malnutrition nationally.
Moreover, much of the maize grown is rain fed, making it vulnerable to climatic shocks such as drought. Within the last 20 years, prolonged dry spells and shorter rainfall seasons have reduced maize yields to only 40 per cent of the long-term average, a consideration that also makes the case for diversification.
Though Zimbabwe has recently been receiving good rainfall, the gains are likely to be jeopardised by the pest attack. Climatic shifts, the inadequate production of alternative staple crops and poverty are contributing to widespread food insecurity.
Maize mono cropping is diminishing the variety of foods in the fields and in people’s diets.
If there is a role that crop diversification can play in halting the advance of future army worm attacks, it is worthy of national debate. Despite being a much loved crop, it is high time to ask whether maize is proving too costly at a production and dietary level.
MOST wheat growing areas where farmers planted maize early have recorded quelea attacks on the crop that has reached the soft dough stage, the Plant Protection and Research Institute (PPRI) has reported.
The PPRI report said attacks were noticed in the bulk of such areas especially in the Midlands province and urged affected farmers to report infestations early to reduce losses.
PPRI head, Mr Shingirai Nyamutukwa challenged farmers to report quelea bird attack early saying the department had more than enough chemicals to spray.
“We have received reports especially from Midlands where the early planted maize is under attack from the birds. Maize at Ngondoma Irrigation Scheme was affected by the birds. We have acquired 7 410 litres of chemicals to deal with the birds. In the past we used to buy 5 000 litres, which would last up to three seasons.
“Farmers with large tracts of land should identify the roosting sites of the birds. The birds are getting into their breeding season so farmers should identify those sites and alert authorities for early control,” he said.
Mr Nyamutukwa said the fall armyworm population was also building up and farmers should continue scouting so they can make reports before the pest destroys crops.
“So far 17 hectares of maize and sorghum have been destroyed by fall armyworm in Mushumbi, Mashonaland Central. We assisted the farmers with chemicals to control the pest. We encourage farmers to do early scouting so there is early control,” he said.
The institute is also assisting vulnerable farmers with chemicals to control the fall armyworm but those who can afford to buy should do so from reputable retailers, further observed Mr Nyamutukwa.
He said teams were on the ground assessing the situation on both the fall armyworm and quelea birds.
Quelea birds have been a threat to summer subsistence small grains and commercial winter cereal cropping in Zimbabwe in recent years.
Each tiny bird can feed on four grammes of wheat per day and experts say a million birds can result in losses exceeding 40 000 tonnes when the quelea birds invade fields in large flocks.
Fall armyworm causes extensive damage to maize if not controlled properly and on time.
The pest has 10 to 12 cycles and can continue recurring after the first spray.