Crisis as fall armyworms attack large seed farms

Christine Ndigwa who has been a maize farmer for 20 years shows how fall army worms have attacked the leaves of her crops.

When he received a call in mid-March, he knew the weight of what awaited him. After all, he had worked as a field agricultural officer for over 30 years.

The call was from a maize farmer in Endebbes, Trans Nzoia County. The farmer was worried about green caterpillars that had invaded his field.

The caller is not an ordinary farmer. He is one of the few farmers contracted by various companies to grow quality maize seeds, which other farmers buy for planting.

So Francis Makokha picked his tools – a magnifying glass and an empty tin. He was going to assess the situation. “I was surprised at what I found.

It was a strange looking worm with spikes on the mouth and had caused a lot of damage,” says Mr Makokha.

He prescribed a pesticide, but a few days later, he started receiving more calls. Some were seed farmers growing maize on large scale, and were worried of what the future held for their harvests.

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They were talking about brown caterpillars chewing on the tussles of their maize plants. Others were describing them as black insects boring through maize stalks and nibbling till they fell the whole crop.

Mysterious animal

Then there were farmers who called it a mysterious animal that showed up when the whole world was asleep; and ravaged various parts of crops, leaving behind dust like droppings and ruining crops as the only evidence of their existence.

What they did not know was that they were all describing the fall armyworm, one of the deadliest pests in the agricultural sector. The worm, which changes colour and appearance in various stages of maturity has the potential of destroying an entire crop.

The pests have wiggled their way into Kenya’s bread basket and are chewing on seeds meant to be sowed for the next season. Trans Nzoia County Agriculture Chief Officer Mary Nzomo says maize plantation in the region covers 107,000 hectares of land, with 8,000 hectares being used to grow maize seeds. She cautions that the excessive use of pesticides could compromise the quality of seeds and crops being grown for consumption.

To her, some hope lies in use of genetic modification – a concept most Kenyans had objected to when it was raised a few years ago to address food insecurity in the country. “This seed is not just for Trans Nzoia, but the whole country. We could have a gap of about three years if this is not treated as an emergency,” says Ms Nzomo.

Eunice Ombachi, admits it is a big problem that requires immediate intervention. “The farmers take loans to grow the crops. Fall armyworms were not anticipated when they applied for loans,” she said. Stakeholders agree that without urgent intervention, the worm will take control of Kenya’s economy. Christine Ndigwa, who has grown maize for 20 years, says since fall armyworms invaded her farm, she watches helplessly as they destroy her crops, which have been her sole source of income.

“They are resistant to every pesticide I use,” she says. The worm, which attacks maize crops in all stages; right from the seedlings to the tassel is different from the African armyworm that responds to pesticides and only chews on seedlings. Entomologists classify it as a lethal pest due to its feeding habits, as it feeds 10 times more than its body weight.

“It eats more than 100 species of crops, making it more serious than other pests,” says Charles Kariuki, an entomologist at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation in Kitale.

Staple crop

He adds that the worm has been attacking Kenya’s staple crop, which has not being doing well due to adverse weather conditions. “Being an exotic pest in a tropical environment, it is devastating especially when no management is done,” he said.

Agriculture CS Willy Bett acknowledges that the ministry led a campaign to control the pest last month, but the pests seem to be spreading faster than they had anticipated, especially in the seed growing zones.

“Our ministry has dedicated Sh230 million, which we will use to eradicate the worms through buying pesticides and sensitising the community,” he said. He added that they will spend a huge chunk of the money on small scale farmers, as they are more vulnerable to loss.

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