AFRICA – According to a recent CABI-led study, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the fall armyworm pest’s effects on maize crops and communities in Sub-Saharan Africa resulting in up to 58% of maize losses.

First discovered in Africa in 2016, the fall armyworm is arguably the most damaging invasive species to afflict all corners of the continent affecting major African crops – particularly maize, sorghum, millet, and legumes.

Researchers from CABI’s regional center for Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, drew on recent empirical literature on the pest to show how it was to blame for up to 58% of maize losses totaling up to US $9.4 billion. 

These findings were published as a Current Opinion article in the journal Environmental Sustainability.

Lead author of the research included in the journal’s themed edition on emerging pests and pathogens, Dr. Monica Kansiime, claimed that the containment efforts for COVID-19 established the circumstances for significant disruption to the food system supply chains, leading to a sharp surge in hunger.

The researchers point out that He and Krainer (2020) estimate that while 7.4 million people had COVID-19 infection in 2020, up to 811 million people—nearly 10% of the world’s population—were undernourished, with the majority of them living in Africa.

According to the paper, the number of deaths from hunger reached four million in 2020, which is ten times the number of deaths from COVID-19.

Dr Kansiime noted that COVID-19 revealed how agricultural systems are extremely vulnerable to crises, underscoring the need for a recovery effort that focuses on building back better for smallholder communities to overcome the impacts of the pandemic, and build resilience against similar threats in the future.

“Institutional strengthening and smallholder linkages to input and output markets, and microcredit support, for instance, will address immediate production challenges in the wake of COVID-19,” she said.

Following COVID-19, the researchers—which also included Dr. Ivan Rwomushana and Idah Mugambi—reviewed the invasion and effects of the fall armyworm on the livelihoods of smallholders in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as the implications for community sustainability. 

They did this by synthesizing peer-reviewed articles released between 2020 and 2022.

Their recommendations for policy and practice for the sustainable control of this pest as well as readiness to handle upcoming threats are highlighted as fresh lessons acquired since the fall armyworm invasion in Africa in 2016 were discovered.

The scientists note that since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in January 2020, there has been a significant disruption of livelihoods caused by the illness itself as well as made worse by strict measures implemented to try and stop the disease’s spread.

They emphasize that because of labor shortages, agricultural workers in low- and middle-income countries with labor-intensive farming systems experienced interruptions in their supply chains and had their outputs jeopardized.

There were obvious issues with the supply and accessibility of essential production inputs such as seeds, plant protection products, and fertilizers.

As stated by the researchers, this led to fewer crop protection steps taken by farmers, such as monitoring for the pest, weeding, and timely pesticide applications, all of which directly affect both preventive and curative pest management actions.

“Enhancing the technical capacities of smallholders to use Integrated Pest Management measures and regional collaboration for multi-risk monitoring and early warning will inform prevention, preparedness, and coordinated actions for the sustainable management of emerging risks in the future,” Ms. Mugambi said.

The researchers affirm that the pest needs to be managed in the face of comparable challenges in the future. They call for additional research and the promotion of low-cost sustainability options.

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