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October 13th, 2017 / Sierra Magazine

Tobias Okwara is a farmer in Kayoro Parish in southeastern Uganda. In the midst of a long drought that began in May 2016, he and his neighbors got together to discuss what to do. Food was becoming scarce, and they hoped to recover quickly once the rains started again. They decided they would pool their meagre resources and plant a large communal field of maize. By spring 2017, the rains had finally returned, and their maize was thriving.

Then the fall armyworm appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Larvae of the nondescript gray moths hatched and ate their way through the field of young corn.

Endemic to North and South America, the fall armyworm was first spotted in January 2016 in Nigeria. No one knows for certain how it arrived on the African continent, but since its initial appearance, the pest has spread to more than 28 countries, including South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and most recently, Sudan and Mali. As it has spread, it has destroyed more than 740,000 acres of maize, the staple food for more than 200 million Africans.

The fall armyworm is closely related to the African armyworm, which is native to the continent. Both pests feed not just on corn, but also on other cereal crops like rice, sorghum, and wheat. Kenneth Wilson of Lancaster University has studied the African armyworm for 25 years and is now part of a working group with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization that is examining how to deal with the newly arrived pest.

Wilson says that while the African armyworm has long been a problem, it typically attacks one area and then moves on to another, making it only a sporadic threat to crop production in any given location. Read more