BAN NONG TOR (Thailand): Looking out at his empty, red-earth field, Thai farmer Puang Timdon said his two-week-old maize crop didn’t stand a chance against the fall armyworm pest.
“All the eight rai (1.28ha) I planted were all heavily infested,” said the 42-year-old from his farm in Ban Nong Tor town in Pak Chong district, 180km northeast of the capital Bangkok.
“The worm ate the whole field in three days, leaving so much damage that it wasn’t worth saving.”
Fall armyworm, a caterpillar that got the name because it invades croplands in droves, much like an army, has rapidly spread across Asia since it was detected in southern India late last year.
Fields in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia and Taiwan have fallen victim. In Thailand, it has badly affected the country’s corn crop, much of which is sold to the animal feed industry.
In recent months, the pest has also been found in 18 of China’s 33 provinces and regions and is now threatening to spread across the key corn region in the northeast.
“It is a major issue for crops. It could pose a food security threat,” said Phin Ziebell, an agribusiness economist at National Australia Bank.
“Management cost is an issue for small farmers.”
Marjon Fredrix, an agricultural officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said some countries have reported damage to crops hit by the pest at 1.2% to about 10%, while others had put the figure at 20% to 40%.
“Once the fall armyworm has arrived, it can’t be eradicated, and farmers will have to manage it,” Fredrix said.
A dip in the production of corn, largely used in Asia to feed animals, could force hog, poultry and cattle growers to rely on expensive imports and dent incomes of millions of small farmers.
Asia’s millions of smallholder farmers – many with less than an acre of land – are likely to take a bigger hit from the pest than larger growers given their reluctance to adopt new technologies to combat production threats.
“There is an inertia about new technologies,” said Paul Voutier, Singapore-based director at Grow Asia.
“And the treatment for fall armyworm has the awful combination of being both costly and difficult.”
Asia is the world’s biggest consumer and importer of corn.
The region accounts for 34% of global corn imports and nearly 36% of world corn consumption, according to the US Department of Agriculture data.
The pest was first reported in Africa in 2016 and has since spread across the entire continent, according to FAO.
In July 2018, fall armyworm – which can fly up to 100km in one night – was spotted in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, and by the end of February 2019 it was reported in 10 of India’s 29 states.
The armyworm has been detected in more than 50 of Thailand’s 76 provinces, and is concentrated in six western provinces with large maize areas. It has a preference for corn, but can attack 80 crops, including rice and sugarcane.
The pest thrives in tropical and sub-tropical climates. Its life cycle is 24 days to 40 days, and so two or three generations of it can feed off a single crop during a growing season before moving on.
“Fall armyworm attacks the corn crop in all stages, right from the germination of seeds and early establishment of the crop, which is the most vulnerable stage, till the harvesting stage,” said Prasanta Patra, who heads the corn and row crops market in Asia for global agrichemicals firm Corteva.
“As the fall armyworm larva prefers to stay in the central part of the young corn plant, a very specific application technique needs to be applied to ensure that the insect comes in contact with insecticide.” — Reuters
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