Soldiers toting pesticide pumps in backpacks are working to eradicate a recent invasion of armyworms, inch-long brown-and-yellow-striped caterpillars that are exacerbating Southern Africa’s worst grain shortage in a decade. Above, troops flying Chinese Harbin attack helicopters are airdropping supplies of pesticide to farms whose corn crops are being devoured.
“It was a surprise outbreak, which required a military-style response,” said John Ndhlovu, a spokesman for Zambia’s military.
The forceful, and unprecedented, offensive against the armyworms highlights the threat to African countries from plant-eating pests that find hospitable conditions because of increasingly volatile weather patterns scientists have associated with climate change.
Since late last year, armyworms—so called because they march in large formations and leave behind destruction—have invaded a third of Zambia’s 3.5 million acres of cornfields.
They have also crossed over into Zimbabwe and Malawi, two countries that depend on international food aid following a severe drought last year. South Africa, Africa’s top corn grower, confirmed Friday that fall armyworms had invaded two of its corn growing provinces, according to Bomikazi Molapo, the spokeswoman for Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Brenda Chihame, who grows corn on a family farm in Zambia’s Copper Belt, hoped for a record harvest this year after early rains persuaded her to double plantings. But one morning in late December, she noticed moths perched on the lush green corn sprouts in one corner of her garden. Soon after, a legion of armyworms had gnawed its way across the five-acre farm.
“I did not even get a chance to spray,” said the 35-year-old mother of three. “By the time I received pesticides, the armyworms had consumed most of the plants. I don’t how I will feed my children.”
The armyworm outbreak has delivered a one-two punch to a region still reeling after its worst drought in 35 years. Last year, Zambia was the only country in Southern Africa that produced more corn than it needed and expectations of a serious grain shortage this year have driven up local corn prices to 50% above their five-year average.
The shortages and price increases threaten to compound hunger in a region containing some 40% of the world’s poorest populations. U.S.-funded research group Famine Early Warning Systems Network says it expects a corn deficit of five million tons in 2016-17, compared with an average surplus of three million tons.
Southern Africa has fallen victim to armyworm attacks in the past and governments and farmers usually store pesticides to fend off an incursion. But this year’s outbreak caught many unprepared because it is led by so-called fall armyworms, which are usually endemic to the Americas and immune to the pesticides that kill African armyworms.
Scientists believe the fall armyworms crossed the Atlantic on container ships ferrying grain imports from South America. They were first detected in West Africa last year, before making their way south, the Zambia Farmers Union said.
“The fact that the fall armyworm is a new pest to the region poses extra challenges, as it will take a bit of time before farmers and other stakeholders understand how to manage it,” said David Phiri, regional coordinator for Southern Africa for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
Corn is the main ingredient for the region’s staple food, a starchy thick porridge known as nsima or pap that millions eat at every meal. To make matters worse, the preferred white corn, which makes up about 90% of the crop, isn’t widely cultivated across the world. Only Mexico and the U.S. produce significant amounts of white corn, traders said.
“Food-price pressures risk stoking social and economic tensions” in the entire region, warned Irmgard Erasmus, an analyst with NKC Africa Economics.
For copper-producing Zambia, the stakes are even higher. Corn prices are the leading driver of inflation, upon which miners unions peg wage demands. Strikes have erupted at several copper mines since the outbreak, threatening output from Africa’s second-biggest miner of the industrial metal.
Even once this year’s outbreak has been contained, Southern Africa’s war against the armyworm won’t be over. Eggs can survive pesticides and hatch the following season.
“Unfortunately, it’s not possible to completely eradicate armyworms,” the FAO’s Mr. Phiri said.
Brazil, Latin America’s biggest corn producer, spends some $600 million a year fending off armyworms, the country’s agriculture ministry said. For many of Africa’s subsistence farmers and governments in the region, such expenses may be out of reach.
“It’s a disaster,” said Colliard Hamusimbi, program officer with Zambia Farmers Union. “Most of the farms under threat are operated by smallholders, which poses an extra challenge for early detection and control.”