The fall armyworm, a caterpillar-like pest that has ravaged crops yields across sub-Saharan Africa for the last two years now poses a significant threat to food security in India.
Native to the Americas, the fall armyworm has been detected on staple crops across in both Asia and Africa in recent years. The first case in Africa was reported in 2016 in Nigeria, and since then billions of pounds of crops have been lost as a result of this quickly reproducing pest. The worm feeds on staples such as maize, sorghum, soya beans, and more than 80 other plant species, making the crops vulnerable to damage.
According to a pest alert by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the fall armyworm was detected on 70% of the maize plants in the Chikkaballapur district of India’s Karnataka state. India is now expecting to face major agricultural challenges, as maize is the country’s third-most important food grain, after wheat and rice.
The pest and other similarly destructive invasive species are especially devastating to rural communities in developing countries that depend on farming for both food security and their livelihoods.
Climate change has worsened the impacts of weather events like drought and flooding, which in turn has has exacerbated the fall armyworm situation in India and Africa by creating the ideal conditions for the pest to survive and thrive.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that 200 million people in Africa depend on maize as a staple in their diet. The fall armyworm infestation could potentially reduce crop yields by 21% to 53% over a three-year period across African countries where the pest has been found.
Food insecurity is a major problem in many parts of the world, not just in countries affected by the fall armyworm.
In 2016, it was estimated that 815 million people globally experienced hunger. However, food insecurity is most rampant in developing countries in southern hemisphere such as Mozambique, Niger, and Tanzania — and the situation has only worsened in recent years.
According to the FAO, undernourishment in Africa rose from 20.8% to 22.7% — from 200 to 224 million people — between 2015 and 2016.
In India, threats to food security are a cause for serious concern. Around 15% of India’s population is undernourished according to the UN, while 4 in 10 children experience stunting — low height and weight for their age due to a lack of early nutrition — because of food insecurity, which can impact everything from childhood development to school performance to long term health outcomes.