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Southern Africa is facing an invasion by something called the armyworm. It's an agricultural pest that's threatening the breadbasket of the region. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has the story.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Zambian farmer Daniel Banda noticed in late December that something was munching through his crop of corn, destroying the maize fields on his small farm just outside the capital Lusaka. Voracious caterpillars known as fall armyworms had nestled in the cobs and chomped through the leaves.
DANIEL BANDA: I've been affected drastically because I spent a lot of money in buying seed which is almost going to waste, that is if it's not controlled. And I'm just hoping that God comes to our aid and make sure that we get something out of it because this field is what I normally use to feed my family.
QUIST-ARCTON: Spraying what's left of his ravaged crop with insecticide, Banda hopes that within the limited planting season he may be able to grow corn again. Corn is the basis for the region's staple food known as nshima in Zambia. Banda's new enemy is the fall armyworm, the Spodoptera frugiperda moth species from the Americas which hit West Africa last year before migrating down south.
BANDA: They can easily wipe out a whole crop. They're second only to red locusts in terms of the intensity of damage that they can cause if not controlled. So it's a very, very dangerous pest.
QUIST-ARCTON: Chimimba David Phiri is the southern Africa regional coordinator for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization - FAO. He says the key to stopping these caterpillars in their tracks is early detection.
CHIMIMBA DAVID PHIRI: It can only be controlled when the larva are still very small and they're under the leaf, then it is easy to use pesticides to control it. Our problem is that about 40 million people are suffering from food insecurity from those two years of drought.
QUIST-ARCTON: This year rains returned to southern Africa, and that's part of the problem. The moisture has brought both the familiar African armyworm and the invasive fall armyworm caterpillar to the surface. And once the caterpillars morph into moths, they turn into an enemy force. Kenneth Wilson from Britain's Lancaster University explains how they conquer new territory.
KENNETH WILSON: It's a very migratory species. So it's the caterpillar stage does the damage to the crop, but it's the adult moth that disperses.
QUIST-ARCTON: Wilson fears the moth pest may spread far beyond this region.
WILSON: Well, it's hardly accomplished at flying. It does that in a series of hops. And it's very likely that if the months are currently in Africa, if they have the same flight ability, which they certainly do, then they could make its way to the Mediterranean and from there on to other places.
QUIST-ARCTON: As far as Asia, says Wilson. Back in Zambia, the government says it has procured insecticides and early maturing seeds for replanting corn. But that relief may not come soon enough for David (ph) Banda. He fears he may have to start buying cornmeal again for his family if the armyworm pest persists.
BANDA: I'll have to rely back onto the shops to buy my meal. So the self-sustenance that I enjoyed, I'm likely going to lose it once this is not controlled.
QUIST-ARCTON: The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization meets this week in Zimbabwe to assess the full armyworm invasion in Southern Africa. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg.
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