By Charles Mkoka
DEDZA, Malawi, Feb 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Armed with fish soup and neem leaves, as well as chemical pesticides, Malawi's drought-hit farmers are fighting a caterpillar that is devouring their crops and putting them at risk of hunger.
The fall armyworm, an invasive Latin American species that is harder to detect and eradicate than its African counterpart, has attacked maize plants covering one fifth of Malawi's arable land, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Agricultural researchers and farmers are fighting back with both imported and local approaches, while also attempting to combat the effects of a prolonged dry spell.
Farmer Joyce Thom, for instance, from Dedza district in central Malawi, is applying crushed neem leaves to her maize stalks to kill the armyworm.
"Some farmers are also using sugar mixed with soup made from fish called usipa, which is applied on the affected stems," Thom said.
"The sugar and soup attract ants which later feed on the fall armyworm themselves. Finally, (there is) the use of soil applied on stems where the worm hides, to suffocate it and break the cycle," Thom said.
Nearly 2 million people are at risk of food shortages because of the effects of armyworms and drought, Agriculture Minister Joseph Mwanamvekha said earlier this month.
In response to the crisis, the government banned the export of maize earlier this month.
'A THORN IN THE FLESH'
Several African countries, including South Africa, have managed to contain the pest using chemical pesticides. Kenya made major steps to control it last year by training farmers to use pesticides correctly and to alternate them to prevent the caterpillar from developing resistance.
Malawi is testing the effectiveness of chemicals such as Deltanex 25EC to control the armyworm, and researching which crop varieties are more resistant to the pest, Osborne Tsoka, a spokesperson for Malawi's agriculture ministry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Although farmers in Malawi are already using pesticides against the pest, researchers are also exploring other techniques, he said.
These include the effectiveness of using enemies found in nature to attack the armyworm, scent traps armed with deadly chemicals, and pheromone traps that can render the worms infertile, he said.
The government is also training its field officers, farmers and communities to identify and manage the pest, Tsoka said.
"The government has generally been on top of the issue of fall armyworm, providing resources and technical support to ensure that farmers effectively deal with it," said Florence Rolle, representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Malawi.
Sosten Alfred is a farmer in Dedza district, where weeks of drought combined with the fall armyworm attacks have caused most of the standing maize to wilt.
"Fall armyworms are a thorn in the flesh of farmers," he said of the pest, which first threatened African crops late in 2016.
He showed how lack of moisture and the crushing of stems by the grown worms badly damaged the leaves, preventing the plants from growing.
But it's not just the staple crop of maize that is under attack.
"(The fall armyworm) is attacking beans, groundnuts, cotton and cereals," Tsoka said. "It has now turned into a regional problem."
DROUGHT HITS HARD
Severe drought in recent years has pushed many farming families in southern Africa deeper into poverty. At the start of 2017, about 6.5 million Malawians, more than a third of the population, were dependent on food aid.
This year, more than 700,000 farming families are affected by dry spells, according to an assessment carried out by the government and FAO.
Climate change is expected to bring more drought and less predictable weather conditions over the coming decades, according to the government's Malawi 2015 Floods Post Disaster Needs Assessment Report.
Farmers in parts of the country are being trained to build deep trenches, and plant trees and vetiver grass, to help trap and hold water for their crops.
To help her fields cope with the shortage of rain, farmer Thom uses mbeya, a fertiliser made locally from chicken and goat droppings, ash, maize bran, chemical fertiliser and water which are left to mature for 21 days.
The fertiliser improves the texture of soil and its ability to hold water during dry spells, she said.
"As such, my maize field looks more healthy and robust compared to other gardens that never applied it," Thom said.
(Reporting by Charles Mkoka, Editing by James Baer and Alex Whiting.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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