Maize shortage looms as Fall armyworm wrecks havoc

Written By: By Ruth Mutegi
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Kenya is staring at a longer maize shortage period if the current infestation by Fall Army Worms in major maize producing regions is not dealt with promptly.

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According to researchers, the worms have now developed resistance to most of the available pesticides, adding more tribulations to the already dire situation.

Farmers in Western Kenya, where the Fall Army Worm was first reported, are anticipating a more than 50 percent reduction in maize production this season which is likely to affect the national output.

It is a state of affairs that has prompted the county government of Trans Nzoia to urge the national government to declare the Fall Army Worm invasion a national emergency to ensure it is accorded the urgency it deserves.

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Trans Nzoia County is one of Kenya’s major maize producing regions, accounting for 15 percent of the overall production with a total value of about Ksh 15.6 billion.

Trans Nzoia deputy governor Dr. Stanley Tarus says, “This issue is very serious, but unfortunately, no one seems to be doing much about it, it is a disaster that needs to be addressed urgently if the country is to feed her citizens. We need collaboration between the national government and the county governments as well as other stakeholders”.

From a distance, hundreds of acres under maize in Trans Nzoia County look quite healthy, but as the old adage goes, looks can be deceiving.

A closer examination on most farms reveals what has been a nightmare to many farmers in 12 counties, the Fall Army Worm.

A worm that has ravaged through maize fields leaving only a trail of destruction.

Mr. Benedict Etabu has been desperately tending to his crop planted on 3 acres since the Fall Army Worm infestation was reported in Trans Nzoia County.

His hope for a good harvest has been erased by what he terms as the worst ever epidemic in his history as a farmer in Trans Nzoia.

Out of a possible 30 bags per acre, he expects to harvest only 15 bags at most.

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“I do not see any other way out of this calamity, we will definitely plunge into food shortage and I personally see a more than half reduction to my usual maize harvest. Maize is our only livelihood; we do not know how we will survive this plague,” says Etabu.

Mr. Etabu has used every pesticide he could think of, but none has managed to get rid of this worm that has seemingly grown resistant to available pesticides.

This means he has had to spend more on his farm in the hope one of the many pesticides will get rid of the deadly worms. “I have already sprayed my farm four times, but nothing has changed.

“The worms hide very well when you are spraying the crops, then come out at night when the chemical smell subsides and ravage through the crop,” adds Mr. Etabu

The biggest challenge in this epidemic is that most farmers were not able to identify the Fall Army Worm early enough, most of them mistaking it for the African Army Worm or the Stalk-borer.

Late interventions saw the quick spread of the worm in many farms. “I did not even know my farm was affected, I was irrigating as usual and I noticed the worms. I asked other farmers around but none of them could identify the worm. I decided to go to the Agrovet at the market and bought a pesticide not knowing what I was dealing with,” remarks Mr. Etabu.

It is only after the county agriculture officers as well as researchers from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), visited the region that the reality dawned on many farmers like Mr. Etabu.

According to researchers, the worms can lay up to 2,000 eggs in their lifetime with eggs hatching in two to seven days depending on weather conditions.

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The eggs are covered with a protein sheath protecting them from any natural enemies, as well as pesticides. This characteristic has made it easier for the worms to spread in large portions of land in just 24 hours.

The fact that the worms attack over 80 crop species including maize, rice, cotton, sorghum, millet, wheat, barley, onions, sugarcane, sunflower, bananas, legumes, and vegetables, has made it impossible to intercrop so as to break their life cycle.

But while farmers are opting to use every available chemical to attack the Fall Army Worms, researchers reckon that this is not a good move as the frequent use of stronger pesticides in the quest to break the Fall Army Worm’s cycle not only poses a health risk, but is also detrimental to Kenya’s exports due to the strict policies on chemical residues in the European Union market.

“There is a risk if we use chemicals that are banned, because if they detect it in the residues then it is a big hazard to the country’s exports. We could also run the risk of using chemicals that are not up to the standards set by the World Health Organization, this is a problem”, Says Ms. Lillian Gichuru, a researcher with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Ms. Gichuru however says there is need for more research to be conducted in the country to give more options on how to tackle the Fall Army Worms in the country, as available literature only shows what has been used in other countries under different environmental conditions. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has been working with other partners on providing farmers with the necessary incentives to contain the Fall Army Worm attack.

“We are not working on eliminating the worms because that is highly unlikely considering even countries like the US have not been able to do so entirely. What we are targeting is how to contain the spread and reduce the damage on the crops. A lot of research needs to be done,” she adds.

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But even as researchers strive to find a long term solution, it is clear that Kenya may face another maize shortage this season if the current figures provided by the affected farmers are anything to go by.

In Trans Nzoia County for instance, out of the possible 5.5 million annual maize production, the county government expects production to fall by a whopping 70 percent if the Fall Army Worms are not contained.

“We are not just talking about maize for food, Trans Nzoia County produces maize seed too, that’s why we have various seed companies stationed in this region. There is a very high likelihood that we may not even have enough seed for planting in subsequent seasons”, notes Trans Nzoia deputy governor Dr. Stanley Tarus.

The Trans Nzoia County government has spent Ksh 43 million so far in fighting the worm but no tangible results have been recorded. The deputy governor wants the scourge declared a national emergency.

Trans Nzoia County alone needs Ksh 200 million shillings to deal with this deadly worm; funds County officials say are not forthcoming from the National Government.

“We have a gap in resources. They are looking at Counties as if they have the capacity to handle these emergencies. Emergencies are a national concern, and we have not seen that national concern”, notes Trans Nzoia County agriculture chief officer Mary Nzomo.

In the meantime, it is not clear just how far the Fall Army Worms have spread and on how to effectively handle them. According to figures by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), Kenya’s annual maize production averages between 35 million bags to 40 million bags depending on the weather conditions.

However, with the country just having come from a period of drought that has made maize a scarce commodity, the Fall Army Worm invasion is a march of destruction that will definitely put a dent on Kenya’s food security situation this season.

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