UN plans emergency meeting, as armyworm outbreak hits South Africa


The United Nations is to hold an emergency meeting into the spread of a dangerous insect pest in southern Africa, where it has already wreaking "considerable crop damage", and which was confirmed on Friday as reaching South Africa.

The UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, is on February 14-16 to meet in Harare over an emergency response to the armyworm outbreak, which has reached Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe besides potentially South Africa, the region's key agricultural export country.

The comments came as South African officials confirmed that caterpillars found on crops in some northern parts of the country were of the fall armyworm - which while endemic in the Americas only reached Africa last year, when it was found in Nigeria before spreading to nearby countries.

"This is a first for us in South Africa," Corne Louw, senior economist at industry group Grain SA told Agrimoney.com.

South Africa's agriculture ministry warned earlier this week that an outbreak of the fall army worm "could be disastrous, particularly to maize [corn] production".

'Extensive damage'

In fact, the pest, actually a moth caterpillar, "has a wide host range", and can affect crops such as groundnuts, potatoes sorghum and soybeans besides corn.

However, where "extensive damage" has been reported so far, in parts of northern areas such as Limpopo and North West Province, it has been "mainly on sweetcorn and on white maize planted for seed production", the ministry said.

The fear is that the moth may spread, and "become a migratory pest similarly to the African armyworm and may migrate in large numbers form one area to another causing great damage.

"The [fall armyworm] moths are good flyers and wind currents may play a role in assisting them to disperse over large distances."

African vs American armyworms

Indeed, one concerns is that while South African producers, who use genetically modified seed for some 85% of domestic corn output, have tried and tested methods for the controlling endemic African armyworm, these may not work on the fall armyworm, Mr Louw said.

"The agrichemicals we use on our own armyworm do not work well against this new one," he said.

However, the South African agricultural industry – a key regional exporter - is taking some comfort that so far the area affected by the fall armyworm has been limited.

"It is not a big area affected," he said, if flagging that the insect "can become a large problem overnight".

Rally reverses

In fact, in the Johannesburg grain markets, best-traded March white maize futures fell by 2.2% to 2,905 rand a tonne on Friday, after bouncing by more than 7% over the previous two sessions.

Yellow maize for March dropped 1.5% to 2,904 rand a tonne, nearly gaining parity with its white maize peer, after a similar recovery over the preceding two sessions.

At industry group Agbiz, Wandile Sihlobo said that earlier concerns provoked by the South African farm ministry statement had been assuaged somewhat by on-the-ground reports confirming the limited spread of the pest so far.

"It has been detected, but not in a significant way," Mr Sihlobo told Agrimoney.com.

South Africa has looked on track for a substantial recovery in corn output from last season's drought-affected levels, with Agbiz this week pegging the crop at 11.9m tonnes, an increase of nearly 60% year on year, and sufficient to hand the country a comfortable export surplus.


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