Pandemic Fall Armyworm outbreak in Zambian maize fields-27/01/2017

Article prepared by Ms Bridget O’Connor of the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, a member of ZAAB

There has been debate among scientists, extension staff and farmers about the invasive worm that is attacking Zambian maize this year. It is not like anything seen before in Zambia. Stalk borer? African armyworm? Bollworm?

It is now confirmed by many scientific quarters that it is the Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), an alien invasive moth native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. According to Dr Georg Goergen of IITA in Benin, it was detected for the first time on the African continent last year in January 2016 and caused devastation in several West African countries. This year S. frugiperda is also in Burundi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.  Its name “Fall” comes from the fact that it cannot survive the cold winters in North America and the moths return to tropical habitat on storm winds in the “autumn”, which Americans call “fall”.

The S. frugiperda is known to have a remarkable dispersal capacity and is observed to migrate every year from its endemic area in the warmer parts of Central and South America over more than 2000km crossing the USA up to Canada in the North and reaching Argentina and Chile in the South. How it came to West Africa last year is not yet known. Amongst speculation is that the introduction is accidental, that easy air travel has increased phytosanitary risk, that climate change variations in high-altitude wind streams may have favoured the shift from one continent to another.

The Fall Armyworm prefers to feed on graminaceous plants (including maize, millet, sorghum, rice, wheat and sugar cane) but can also attack crops like cowpea, groundnuts, potato, soyabean and cotton. More than 80 host plants have been recorded and there can be host specific variations of S. frugiperda. However the larva (caterpillar) always has a distinctive upside-down Y marked on its face.

In climatic regions allowing constant generations such as Brazil, the third largest maize producer in the world, S. frugiperda is considered the most important pest on this crop and causes damage estimated at more than $600m annually. The economic consequences may not be limited to its direct effects on agricultural production but also has the potential to adversely affect access to foreign markets. In recent years, quarantine interceptions have significantly increased at European entry points and, in 2015, S. frugiperda was reassessed and ranked as A1 quarantine pest on the European and Mediterranean list.

Dr Georgen warns that S. frugiperda is likely to become more damaging to maize than other species of the same genus occurring in Africa because: a) S. frugiperda also actively feeds during the daytime, b) adult female moths lay their eggs directly on the maize plants, c) older larvae become cannibalistic tolerating only few congeners on the same host plant, d) the mandibles have serrated cutting edges easing feeding on plants with high silica content. Damage on maize may be observed on all plant parts depending on development stage of the larvae. On grown maize plants larvae also attack reproductive organs feeding on tassels or boring into the cobs. Following hatching the neonates usually bore into the host plant and develop under protected conditions. Hence control with contact insecticides is often ineffective although is still the most widely practiced management measure.

According to Dr Goergen of IITA, long use of synthetic pesticides and the use of the Cry1F GM (genetically modified) maize in the Americas has led to the emergence of resistant populations of this pest.  According to Dr Gilson Chipabika of ZARI, in Zambia it seems that this population is not responding to most insecticides especially the fourth and fifth instars. Some crops in Zambia have been scorched by the chemicals and many farmers do not have the correct protective clothing to apply strong chemicals. Some farmer families complain of the strong smell and have experienced respiration problems. Many farmers grow maize close to the homestead. Apart from the health problems that chemicals can cause, they also negatively impact on non-target organisms such as beneficial insects (both pest predators and pollinators), birds, livestock and other wildlife. A number of predators can be observed on affected plants here in Chongwe where chemicals have not been used.

Farmers who practice agroecological/organic methods with a lot of diversity and legume intercrops have had less attack than conventional farmers. Some have had no attack at all, some only had a small amount of attack on the early planted maize. On these farms there has already been build-up of a wide diversity of predators which are able to control the armyworm. When African armyworm attacked 4 years ago one of these farmers found that whereas his neighbours on all sides had huge problems, he only had a bit of damage on his boundaries when the armyworms had finished all the grass on the other side. Some farmers are putting sandy soil into the maize funnels which is abrasive to the skin of the fall armyworm and can kill it. It is recommended by these farmers that there be regular scouting and application of sand at first sight of damage. Even better would be to put sand in every funnel of maize at knee height as is recommended at KATC against the bollworm and now it will be even more important against the Fall Armyworm.  Some farmers find applying ash or detergent powder is successful. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a microbial pesticide permitted in organic farming and effective against the Fall Armyworm. Liquid Bt Looper Kill is available in the country as well as a powder Bt Halt.  Neem oil or crushed Neem seed extract is also effective.

According to Dr. Goergen, in its native range numerous parasitic wasps, flies and other predators have been recorded as natural enemies of the fall armyworm. And that some species, in particular egg and larval parasitoids, are frequently introduced, resulting in noticeable levels of control. We would like to know how the ZARI programme to breed up such pest predators for release is faring.

Dr Goergen also reports in the IAPPS newsletter of October 2016 that there has been detection of promising isolates of nucleopolyhedroviruses (NPV) for the Fall armyworm. These are natural viral diseases specific to the pest and one has already been produced for the African armyworm, SpexNPV. However, according to Professor Ken Wilson, the process of registration for use in Zambia of these biological pesticides has unfortunately not yet started.  According to Dr Goergen the development of biopesticides including the use of endophytic entomopathogenic fungi is in its infancy and needs increasing attention for providing viable alternatives to conventional insecticides. He says there is an urgent need for developing ecologically sustainable, economically profitable and socially acceptable IPM programs to fight the fall armyworm in Africa.

According to a University of Florida publication, the most important cultural practice, employed widely in southern states of USA, is early planting and/or early maturing varieties. Early harvest allows many maize ears to escape the higher armyworm densities that develop later in the season (Mitchell 1978). Reduced tillage seems to have little effect on fall armyworm populations (All 1988), although delayed invasion by moths of fields with extensive crop residue has been observed, thus delaying and reducing the need for chemical suppression (Roberts and All 1993).

Prof Wilson suggests that to effectively and sustainably assure food security in the midst of African armyworm migrations, a robust, country-wide surveillance and early warning system using pheromone traps that attract male armyworm moths by using the artificial scent of mating female armyworms is needed so that farmers are alerted in good time about impending outbreaks. These are used in combination with local weather reports to forecast armyworm outbreaks at a local level – so called ‘community based armyworm forecasting’. The same traps that are used to check for African armyworm could also be used for Fall armyworm – you just need to change the pheromone septum.  Investment in an extensive network of pheromone traps in Zambia could pay dividends and be cost-effective. Knowing if there will be an invasion of a pest will allow the country to be prepared for controlling the pest. Also correct identification of the moth caught in these pheromone traps is crucial.

There is a regional organization ‘Red Locust’ that has the mandate for monitoring African armyworm and giving early warning but the warnings have not been forthcoming.


  1. Setting up effective early warning system
  2. Correct identification of the moths caught in the pheromone traps
  3. Start the process now for entry approval of viral controls specific for the African and Fall armyworms
  4. Research biological control methods of Fall Armyworm, e.g. sand in funnel of maize, greater cropping diversity, sunhemp and other legume intercropping, push-pull technologies.

Information for this article has been collected from:

Professor Ken Wilson, Lancaster University (working on African armyworm for the past 25 years) <>

Donald Zulu, researcher/lecturer at Copperbelt University (currently pursuing his PhD at the University of Reading, UK)

Dr Gilson Chipabika, ZARI

Sebastian Scott, Agricultural Advisor, Grassroots Trust

Dr. Georg Goergen, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Biodiversity Resource Center, Cotonou, Benin (IAPPS newsletter October 2016.)

Mrs Gloria Musowa Mwanza, Chongwe Organic Producers & Processors Association (CHOPPA)

Mr Vincent Choongo and Mr Deadricks Hadunka, Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre

Sand technology – Mr Moses Mulenga and Mr Kelly Kalolo, Farmers in Chinkuli, Chongwe

University of Florida




Will the ‘NO GMOs’ Stance by Zambia Stand The Test of Time?- Press statement 7/12/ 2015

Zambia’s long held position of ‘No GMOs’ is under threat. The Zambia Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity (ZAAB) is deeply concerned over the statements made by our National Biosafety Authority (NBA) board chairperson, Dr Paul Zambezi, quoted in the Zambia Daily Mail on 7 December 2015. The statements were clearly biased towards the promotion of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) within Zambia.

Zambia’s longstanding ‘No GMO’ position gives the country significant economic advantage. Globally more and more countries are banning genetically engineered (GE) crops and the importation of food products containing GMOs. Zambia is in a unique and strategic position to take advantage of this growing market. Zambia has been applauded for upholding its ‘No GMO’ position, by both the international community and Zambia’s citizens – consumers, farmers, religious and political leadership alike.

According to the above referred media article, “Dr Zambezi said there is a need to amend some of the clauses in the Biosafety Act, which inhibit growing GMO crops, including Bt cotton”.  He is further quoted as stating that: “At least non-edible crops can be allowed to be grown under proper regulatory regime”. Cotton, however, IS a food. Cotton seed oil is used for cooking. Cotton cake is fed to livestock and we drink the milk and eat the meat of this livestock. In this way, Bt would be introduced into our food chain.

The NBA chairperson went on to say: “we need to embark on a nationwide public awareness programme to educate the people about biotechnology and its GMO products. There is a lot of misinformation going on, not only in Zambia, but also in the whole world”. The ZAAB applauds the chairperson’s recognition of the need for accurate awareness creation. However, it is imperative that this information is unbiased and that decisions made by the NBA are in the best interests of Zambia’s citizens, future generations and the environment.

Biotech companies who produce GE seeds are pushing for Zambia to change its biosafety laws so that they can profit from increased sales. GMO seeds are patented and cost far more than conventional seeds. Farmers are required to sign contracts when they purchase GMO seeds stating that they will not save seed for re-growing.  Farmers are forced to repurchase seeds every year. Multi-national companies like Monsanto and Syngenta who hold the monopoly over patented seeds have made billions in profit off their sales to struggling farmers.

The Biotech industry claims that GM crops like Bt cotton will give farmers higher yields and require less pesticides use. This is not true. No GM crop is modified to increase yield. No GM crop can resist drought. Yield and drought tolerance are inherent characteristics of seed breeding, not of the GM inserts that make seeds patentable by the biotech industry. In all places where Bt cotton has been grown: India, China, South Africa, South America – after two or three years the dreaded boll worm develops resistance and returns, often together with new pests that were never a problem before. More and more pesticides have to be used every year to control the pests. Farmers all over the world have been left with higher debts due to growing GE crops. The overwhelming debts have been blamed for the high rates of suicide among farmers growing Bt cotton in India.

Monsanto has long claimed that Glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Round Up and the most commonly used herbicide in GE crops, is safe. This is not true. The World Health Organisation has declared that Glyphosate is probably linked to cancer. There are significant negative effects of Glyphosate to biodiversity and agricultural production, including immune suppression in crops and resistance build up in weeds. The resultant ‘superweeds’ have become a huge agricultural threat and financial challenge in places like the USA and South Africa. Monsanto’s herbicide is already sold widely in Zambia, threatening the environment and the health of farmers and consumers alike.

The livelihoods of Zambia’s farmers and the seeds belonging to them, are at dire risk from contamination if Zambia allows GE crop production. GM crops can cross pollinate (particularly maize but also possible in cotton). If this happens and a GMO gene is found in a farmer’s crop, the biotech company can take farmers to court, for so called ‘infringing’ on their patent rights. Few farmers can afford or win a court battle against multibillion dollar companies.

Zambia’s Biosafety Act is founded on the Cartagena Protocol under the Convention of Biological Diversity. Zambia is a signatory of this internationally acclaimed protocol. A clear priority within the Cartagena Protocol refers to the need to ‘protect human health and the environment from the possible adverse effects of the products of modern biotechnology’.

A key element in the Zambia Biosafety Act is the ‘Liability and Redress Clause’. This clause ensures that those who bring GMOs into Zambia will be liable for any resulting health, economic and environmental damage. This is a precautionary action to protect the nation and its people. The Biotech industry is trying to persuade Zambia to change this clause. It is clear that this industry is motivated by profits and not by health and welfare of Zambia as a nation.

Once Zambia lets in one GMO, it will be more difficult to say no to other GMOs. We need to guard our rights and refuse to be seduced by the false claims of the GMO industry and its beneficiaries. The NBA is in place to protect the rights of Zambia’s citizens and uphold their best interests – their seeds, their farms and our health. It is not its place to promote the sales for multibillion dollar biotech companies. Zambia has said, and should continue to say NO to all GMOs.

The ZAAB commends the government of past presidents; Dr Levy Mwanawasa, Mr Michael Sata and the present government of His Excellency President Edgar Lungu for their courageous stand against GMOs and for protecting Zambia’s ‘NO to GMO’ stand. This has been an envy of many nations around the globe. We urge the NBA to infact advocate for further strengthening of the Zambian Biosafety Act which in it’s current form stands out as one of the most progressive in the world.

Date: 12 January, 2016

Emmanuel Mutamba

Chairperson – ZAAB


Member organisations of the Zambia Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity include:

  1. Green Living Movement (GLM)
  2. Chalimbana River Headwaters Conservation – Trust (CRHC-Trust)
  3. Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre (KATC)
  4. Community Technology Development Trust (CTDT)
  5. Grassroots Trust
  6. Participatory Ecological Land-Use Management – Association (PELUM Association)
  7. Participatory Ecological Land-Use Management – Zambia (PELUM Zambia)
  8. Council of Churches Zambia (CCZ)
  9. Chongwe District Women Development Alliance (CDWDA)
  10. Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR)
  11. Caritas Zambia
  12. Organic Producers and Processors Alliance of Zambia (OPPAZ)
  13. CUTS Lusaka
  14. East and Southern Africa Small-scale Farmers Forum (ESAFF)
  15. Zambia Climate Change Network (ZCCN)
  16. Zambia Community Based Natural Resources Management Forum (CBNRM Forum)
  17. Zambia Land Alliance (ZLA)
  18. Zambia Relief and Development Foundation (ZRDF)
  19. Zambia Rural Women’s Assembly