The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) has sounded the alarm after the invasive agricultural pest Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) was discovered in Karnataka this July. A major maize pest in North America, the Fall Armyworm arrived in Africa in 2016. Since then, it has threatened the continent’s maize crop, a staple which feeds 300 million people.
The Karnataka finding is the first report of the pest in Asia. The discovery is more worrisome because the pest feeds on around 100 different crops, such as vegetables, rice, and sugarcane.
Its discovery in Karnataka means its spread to the rest of the country, as well as neighbouring countries, could be just a matter of time.
Entomologists C.M. Kalleshwara Swamy and Sharanabasappa from Shivamogga’s University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences first suspected that something was amiss when the pest infestation in maize crops in Shivamogga spiked this year.
Initially, they suspected it was the Northern Armyworm, or Mythimna separata, a common local pest. But when they examined the moth, they were able to identify it as the Fall Armyworm through its distinctive genitalia. Further confirmation came through DNA barcoding at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Horticultural Research.
The first line of defence against the Fall Armyworm will be insecticides like lambda-cyhalothrin. It’s efficacy is currently being studied in field trials. Also, the researchers have found some natural predators such as coccinellid beetles, that can aid biological control. A fungal species called Nomuraea rileyi also infects the Fall Armyworm. But these natural enemies may not be as effective as insecticides, Prof. Swamy told The Hindu.
Now, that the pest is here, not much can be done to keep it from spreading elsewhere in the subcontinent, said A.N. Shylesha, an entomologist at Bengaluru’s National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources. Africa’s experience shows how quickly the pest can colonise a new continent. First reported in Central and Western Africa in 2016, it has spread to 44 African countries today and has proved hard to control.
In India, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are at immediate risk. And even though the pests reported in Shivamogga and Chikballapur, Karnataka, are only feeding on maize and sorghum at the moment, they are likely to spread to other crops.