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Let’s fight the little devil

THE caterpillar from hell is back, but this time around, we may be better prepared to deal with the little devil.
The fall armyworms (Spodoptera frugiperda), which have recently been sighted in 18 districts, first surfaced in Zambia in 2016, and caused extensive damage to the maize crop.
The armyworms resurfaced in the subsequent years with the same appetite.
This creature with an avaricious appetite is eating at the very core of existence, for there is nothing that threatens a nation’s existence more than hunger or starvation.
In 2017, more than 172,000ha of maize across all the 10 provinces were ravaged by armyworms.
The cost of bringing the situation under control ran into millions of Kwacha.
Government spent at least K30 million to buy pesticides to control the worms.
And in 2018, Government allocated K15 million to strengthen the response to the pest.
This year, as announced by the Vice-President’s Office, Government has set aside K18.6 million in the national budget to control and manage armyworms.
According to Vice-President Inonge Wina, in addition, the African Development Bank has committed US$3 million for the purchase of chemicals used in combating the pests.
She said so far, 41,666 litres of chemicals worth US$500,000 have been procured.
Our hope is that these chemicals will reach the targeted farmers in good time, in order to effectively combat the armyworms and stop them from spreading to other areas.
Going by our past experience, we know that if the worms are not controlled effectively in good time, tens of thousands more hectares of maize will be destroyed.
Unlike in 2016 when we seemed to be groping in the dark when we encountered the worms – not sure what they were or how to deal with them – now we have better knowledge of what we are dealing with.
More than anything else, there is need to enhance the early warning system in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, as this creature knows no political or geographical boundaries.
And it is commendable that Government is already liaising with the SADC member states, especially neighbouring countries that were affected by armyworms during the 2016/17 outbreak.
We need to realise that some of the problems we now face, including the fall armyworms, are induced by changing weather patterns as a result of climate change, hence may not go away that easily.
Therefore, seeing the armyworms want to be permanent residents of our region, there is need to invest more in research in order to come up with more permanent solutions to stop them from ravaging our staple food.
This is critical because as the Food Agriculture Organisation advises, pesticides should be used to a bare minimum to prevent a build-up of resistance and damage to the environment.
In the long run, Government must ensure that research institutions breed resistant maize varieties that cannot be attacked by the arms.
Farmers must also play a role in this by adopting better practices in crop farming such as rotation to avoid a build-up of the armyworms.
Farmers must also be vigilant and look out for early signs of the fall armyworms and report any sightings of the little creature to agriculture experts.
There is also need to equip extension officers in order to better fight the problem.
While there is no silver bullet to stop the armyworms, with consented effort, the armyworms can be stopped, or at least lessen their damage to our maize fields.
Mrs Wina said Government, through the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit, is activating the call centre where farmers can obtain information on how to reduce threats of further outbreaks.
This process must be activated soon in order to counter the spread of the fall armyworms.
Let us all work together to secure our staple food.