China, EU corn sector warned as potent armyworm reaches India

3 Aug 2018 | Tim Worledge

China’s huge corn crop is “certain” to face infestation from an aggressive migratory pest that has already caused devastation across cereal crops in Africa and causes perennial problems for the Americas, NGOs and bioscience researchers have said Friday.

The warning comes following the identification of the Fall Armyworm in India, with the country’s agricultural research council confirming that over 70% of a field in Karnataka is infested with the grub, in a region that has already been identified as a potential hotspot.

“The big news is that it’s just been reported from India; that’s the first report [of armyworm] in Asia,” Roger Day, Executive for Action on Invasives at the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) told Agricensus.

“There are a number of countries in Southeast Asia that are significant producers of corn, particularly China,” Day warned, with models suggesting that large areas of the region’s planting area could be susceptible.

That is significant, as models had already identified global hot spots in which the caterpillar could potentially thrive – with southern India on the list, along with China and much of the European Union.

“We were predicting that it will arrive in India because the climate in southern India, particularly around Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, form climatic hotspots,” Regan Early senior lecturer in conservation biology at the UK’s University of Exeter said.

“Climate change is not the underlying driver. The problem is that it’s got into Africa,” Early continued, with the insect arriving from its native Central America and rapidly establishing itself to cause devastating crop losses of up to 50% in the continent.

“Now it’s in India it will almost certainly get into China and Southeast Asia,” she said, with China and Indonesia amongst the region’s biggest corn growing nations that now lie in the pests’ path.

“Corn is the favourite food, but it eats all cereals; sorghum, millet, wheat, rice, even flowers such as roses and forage grass,” Early said, with its name coming from its propensity to mass for corn crops.

EU en garde

The EU is already investigating the potential for the pest to reach Europe and looking at countermeasures such as pesticides as well as ground-breaking initiatives such as viruses or parasitic wasps to control.

“A big question for Europe is whether it will reach North Africa,” Day said, with the moths’ ability to migrate large distances meaning it wouldn’t need to establish colonies on the European continent in order to feed on Europe’s corn crop.

In its original habitat, the Americas, it lives permanently in the central region with Texas or Florida the furthest north it can live over winter.

However, each year the moths are able to migrate as far north as Quebec, meaning the Mediterranean is no barrier to the bug’s progress.

“Over the course of the season they can go hundreds, even thousands of kilometres… In Asia, it will almost definitely become a fact of life. In Africa, there’s no going back. To me, it’s just a matter of time,” Day said.