The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Rise of the Fall Army Worm

A growing global population will undoubtedly increase the stress on finite resources, non-more so than with food availability. This looks set to be exacerbated with the rapid colonisation of Southern Africa by a new species of pest, destroying thousands of crops along with the livelihoods of farmers across the region.

The perpetrator is the Fall Army worm (Spodoptera Frugiperela), a non-native crop demolishing caterpillar, which is thought to have been introduced through imported goods from North and South America. This very hungry caterpillar has begun spreading across southern Africa as fast as a swarm of locusts. Targeting mainly maize plant species, the Army worm munches its way through the crops, quickly destroying the young shoots. Not only are the caterpillars masters of destruction, they also cunningly burry themselves into the crops to make it virtually impossible to establish their existence from the outside. In addition, they can lay a total of 50 eggs in a single location, making them the perfect invader.

Although first reported in Príncipe and São Tomé in January 2016, the wind has aided adult moths to disperse their vast amounts of larvae far and wide, including regions such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique. Scientists from the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) believe that if this pest is not controlled it could spread to as far as Asia and the Mediterranean. So, how does this affect me and you? Well, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the situation may become a threat to “world-wide agricultural trade” if it is not dealt with soon.

Alarmingly, the FAO estimate that 70% of crops in the region have already been destroyed by the caterpillar. With maize and grain species remaining the main component of many southern African diets, their production represents a core component of the livelihoods for thousands of farmers in the region. The situation is especially fragile; this latest trouble comes at a time when the region is still recovering from two consecutive droughts, which drastically reduced the availability of food in the region. As a result of the invasive pest, the rates of starvation and debt suffered within the region could increase if the Army worm is not stopped.

As metaphorical alarm bells begin to ring, the FAO is set to hold emergency talks this February in Harare, Zimbabwe, discussing how best to tackle the imminent threat. Highlighting the seriousness of the situation, the Zambian government has already spent an estimated US$ 3 million to try and control these hungry caterpillars, opting to fight the pest with its own army. In an attempt to manage the outbreak, thousands of affected hectares of land have been sprayed with pesticides using Zambian military planes.

As the region yet again faces more challenges, it is crucial that this latest threat is dealt with in the most efficient and effective way possible. If managed incorrectly, the food security and livelihoods of southern African citizens will be at stake.


Camille Hanotte

(Image courtesy of Harmony Brands)

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