Global Partnership Series: Researcher rules out possibility of completely wiping out fall armyworm in Malawi   

Editor’s note: Occasionally we share stories through our global partnerships. This one is produced by Rhoda Msiska from the Voice of Livingstonia in Malawi.

By Rhoda Msiska

Agricultural authorities doubt if Malawi will ever wipe out a fall armyworm outbreak.

Researchers say that the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) is an insect larvae that feeds on more than 80 plant species that include maize, rice, sorghum, sugarcane, vegetables and cotton. It has a voracious appetite and reproduces and spreads quickly, given the right environmental conditions.  The adult moths are about 1.25 inches to 1.5 inches wing tip to wing tip, with a brown or gray forewing and a white hind wing.

army worm
Fall armyworm.

More than 17,000 hectares of maize in Malawi have been damaged, a development which poses a great risk to the country’s drive for food security.

Since late 2016, the fall armyworm has spread across much of sub-Saharan Africa. It has been officially identified in 11 countries and is suspected in at least 14 others.

It is imperative that government partner with stakeholders to develop new strategies to control the pest and to do research, said Tonny Maulana, a member of the Committee of Trainers in the Southern Africa Development Community-SADC.

The Committee of Trainers includes agricultural stakeholders and researchers from different countries who propose different interventions to contain the outbreak.

Maulana, an entomologist who is also on the taskforce to manage the fall armyworm in Malawi, said government failed to contain the outbreak during the last farming season – a development he said that has contributed to the further spread of the pest.

“We can only manage the outbreak, but doing away with it completely remains a farfetched dream,” said Maulana, who is also the deputy director of agricultural research services at Lunyangwa Research Station.

The development department for the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in the synod of Livingstonia, has since announced an armyworm study in the Rumphi District in northern Malawi. It will evaluate the effectiveness of conservation agriculture in controlling the pest.

Conservation agriculture is a set of soil management practices that minimize the disruption of the soil’s structure, composition and natural biodiversity. It has the potential to improve crop yields and the long-term environmental and financial sustainability of farming.

The study will examine how the fall armyworm responds to moisture retention and soil fertility promoted by these practices.

The fall armyworm has been reported across Africa. Local reports indicate that more than 17,000 hectares of maize has been affected in Malawi alone.

More than 83 percent of Malawi’s population resides in rural areas and depends on subsistence farming, according to the 2008 population and housing census.

Rhoda Msiska is a reporter with the Voice of Livingstonia, a northern Malawi radio station with more than 4 million listeners. 

 

 

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Teaching a sweet potato self-defense

Sweetpotato farmer.jpg

By Max Johnston

Here in the states we like our sweet potatoes fried, sweetened and tater-totted. But the nutritious sweet potato is more than just a side dish. Sweet potato is also a cheap and resilient crop.

While it’s a popular food here, it can be a livelihood for low-income farmers. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

But there’s a small problem, or should I say a big problem in a small package. We may enjoy sweet potatoes, but so does the weevil–a small brown beetle that resembles an ant.

Listen to this story here.

Brooke Bissinger is an entomologist at AgBiome, a biotech company in North Carolina. She says the weevil loves the taste of sweet potato.

“Weevil is the most devastating pest to the sweet potato worldwide,” Bissinger said.

Bissinger says the weevil likes to eat and live in sweet potatoes. But in the process, they ruin them for everyone else.

“The insect lays its eggs in the sweet potato itself and then the larvae or the immature weevils, feeds on the potato,” Bissinger said. “It also causes the potato to make chemicals that are both bad tasting and toxic to people and animals.”

Weevils can be especially devastating to African farmers because sweet potato is a ‘low value’ crop that doesn’t fetch much cash in the open market.

Here in the states farmers spray pesticides to kill weevils. While that’s effective here it’s not really an option for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s a very low-value crop they’re growing to feed their families,” Bissinger said. “So the cost for them to use insecticides in these African countries is much more than the crop itself.”

Because there are so many farmers in the region it’s very easy for weevils to spread and devastate other crops. There are certain cultural practices to stop the spread of weevils, like rotating your crops and burning infested sweet potatoes. But those require a lot of work and time that those farmers might not have.

So Bissinger and her team at AgBiome are looking for cheap and effective ways to protect the sweet potato from weevils. They’re doing this by studying micro-organisms and bacteria that are already present in the sweet potato and the surrounding soil that can fight off the pest.

This isn’t an entirely new concept. There’s good bacteria all over the place. There’s good bacteria in your stomach to help with digestion. Even yogurt is made from healthy bacteria that ferments milk.

“So there are good bacteria that can control bad bacteria, or even other organisms. So there are good bacteria that can control insects,” Bissinger said.

Using good bacteria to fight pests has been done before. Bt, short for Bacillus thuringiensis, is a common bacteria in soil that kills insects.

“It’s super commonly used in agriculture and insect control, but Bt isn’t the only microbe that’s out there,” Bissinger said. “So we’re really interested in looking around sweet potatoes to see if there are other bacteria that are beneficial that could kill the weevil.”

If AgBiome finds bacteria that fight weevils in sweet potatoes and their soil, it could be used to give African farmers cheap and easy access to an effective weevil pesticide.

For the next three years AgBiome, with a grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will be identifying microbes and bacteria in sweet potatoes and soil from sub-Saharan Africa.

“Hopefully once we find something, we’ll go over to Africa and test it against the species they’ve got and work with partners over there to get it out to the growers,” Bissinger said.

Global Partnership Series: Improving research through awareness

Malawi

As part of The Knight Center for Environmental Journalism’s two-continent, three-country training tour, we’re sharing stories that we’ve received through our global partnerships.

This story on the communicating research to the public was produced by Bernadetta Chiwanda from FM 101 Power Radio.

Listen here.

Chiwanda interviewed Dave Poulson, the Senior Director of The Knight Center.

Poulson says research is no good if no one knows about it.

FM 101 Power Radio is Malawi’s first independent radio station and covers all three regions of the country. For more information on The Knight Center’s tour and partnerships, read more here: https://msufoodfix.wordpress.com/2017/08/20/bridging-food-scientists-and-journalists-with-communications-training/#more-1596

Global Partnership Series: Fixing the relationship between scientists and farmers

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 7.41.24 AM
Bernadetta Chiwanda from FM 101 Power Radio

As part of The Knight Center for Environmental Journalism’s two-continent, three-country training tour, we’re sharing stories that we’ve received through our global partnerships.

This story on the relationship between Malawi’s researchers and farmers was produced by Bernadetta Chiwanda from FM 101 Power Radio.

Listen here

Emmanuel Kaunda is the out-going Acting Vice Chancellor at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Fisheries. He says poor communication between scientists and farmers cost Malawi billions of Kwachas, Malawi’s currency.

FM 101 Power Radio is Malawi’s first independent radio station and covers all three regions of the country.

For more information on The Knight Center’s tour and partnerships, read more here: https://msufoodfix.wordpress.com/2017/08/20/bridging-food-scientists-and-journalists-with-communications-training/#more-1596