The Democratic Alliance has called for a disaster management plan to be implemented in light of the “potentially devastating armyworm invasion”, but the government says it’s too soon to panic.
On Monday reports surfaced of a larvae outbreak suspected to be armyworm, which damaged maize in the Limpopo and North West provinces. It is believed to be responsible for crops that have been attacked in neighbouring countries.
Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries spokesperson Bomikazi Molapo says it’s too soon to speculate anything “with taxonomy not complete”.
“It is an unidentified pest for now. We are waiting to hear from the Agricultural Research Council; scientists have collected samples from Limpopo and North West and none of the larvae have fully developed. Until then, we can’t add to speculation,” she said.
Marinda Visser, manager at the Grain SA research and policy centre, said they were still waiting for confirmation from the government whether the samples collected in the Limpopo and North West provinces were fall armyworms.
Visser says the African armyworm was a common and known pest and that control processes were in place to deal with any possible outbreak.
The detrimental outcome, however, would be if the larvae were fall armyworms, native to North and South America, which had never broke out in South Africa.
“We have currently registered for emergency pesticides because we don’t have processes in place to deal with the fall armyworm,” Visser said.
Visser says larvae samples had been collected from three provinces and that all they could do now was wait for the larvae to mature.
“We are dealing with 31 specimens in this instance and each needs to go through the lifestyle process and by then we will know what we’re dealing with,” she said.
The African armyworm is a moth that feeds on all types of grasses, cereal crops (such as mealies, wheat, sorghum, rice and millet) and sugar cane.
The armyworm gets its name from its habit of “marching” in large numbers from grasslands into crops.
The fall armyworm is native to the Americas and eats everything in an area.
It was first reported in West Africa about a year ago and has spread rapidly throughout the continent, ravaging crops in countries including Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.
An infestation is hard to detect compared with that of its African counterpart.
Molapo said the department had received a number of reports from concerned farmers whose corn had been infested with pests.
“We have our eye on the situation and will implement due processes once the larvae has been identified. Should it be a case of armyworm, we will give formal [nationwide] confirmation and see what pesticides we can use,” she said.
The DA said the silence from Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Senzeni Zokwana was alarming.
“The arrival of armyworms is a threat to our country’s food security and could lead to additional increases in food prices, which will have a negative effect on the poorest and most vulnerable in our country,” the DA said.
The infestation of fall armyworms was reported in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi following a crippling El Nino-triggered drought that scorched much of the region last year.
Countries with confirmed outbreaks can face import bans on their agricultural products because the armyworm is classified as a quarantine pest.