[ANALYSIS] Fall armyworm and the SADC

Recent threats to food security in Southern Africa have a biblical ring to them. First a drought beating 30 year dries. Then an invasion of caterpillars and finally locusts.

International experts gathered in Harare this week to talk about the fall armyworm that is chewing up staple crops in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Kenya.

They’re trying to establish how they got here and then how best to fight them.

Since the worm is in fact a caterpillar, they could have flown in. The most popular theory is they came in on aircraft from South America to Togo and Nigeria.

They should not be confused with the African armyworm that has destructively marched across the continent for decades.

The fall armyworm is a bit of a glutton. Very hungry and not discerning. It turns on soybeans, potatoes, maize, sorghum and even tobacco.

The caterpillar, which authorities have no experience in dealing with, destroys three quarters of the crop it attacks.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has gathered SADC ministers in Harare on Thursday to tell them the fall armyworm is quick.

It has taken just six weeks to spread across the countries it is devastating. It also has the wanderlust. The moths fly long distances, putting central and west Africa at risk.

Finding the worm is no easy task. It burrows into the stem of plants, preventing farmers from seeing them until it is too late.

Thus far Zimbabwe and South Africa are the only countries in the region that have officially admitted to having a problem with this pest.

The others have to acknowledge the same thing and provide data to help counter it.

The FAO says it is vital to know how many hectares are affected and accurately gauge the intensity of the onslaught.

Even as they are speaking about worms, agriculture experts say the region faces a red locust threat that could be way more destructive than the drought and the caterpillars.

The locusts breeding in central Zambia have already reached densities of as much as 50 per square metre over 76 000 hectares in an area known as the Kafue Flats.

Moses Okhoba, director of the International Red Locust Control Organization for Central and Southern Africa, says if uncontrolled, they could form swarms of 40 million insects, destroying maize fields in their way.

Okhoba says an outbreak of locusts will be about ten times more destructive than the fall armyworms.

A swarm of locusts will totally strip the crop from a field.

Jean-Jacques Cornish is an Africa correspondent at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @jjcornish