Re-posted from Zambia Daily Mail. Articlce by BENEDICT TEMBO

The recent outbreak of crop pests has brought to the fore not only the farmers’ perceptions but also the challenges of sustainably dealing with the pests that threaten to undo the anticipated bumper harvest. With the armyworms having been reported to have broken out in most parts of the country in mid-December last year, any attack was adjudged to be the crop-eating caterpillars.

Armyworms infestations were reported in about 124,000 hectares of maize fields. In Petauke, for example, when Arthur Sakala noticed some lesions on his maize crop in the backyard, he raised the red flag fearing it was the armyworms ‘building a barrack’ in his field. In neighbouring Nyimba, Chief Ndake and district commissioner Peter Kaisa contended that the crop-eating caterpillars in the district were not armyworms but stalk borers, contrasting district agricultural coordinator (DACO) James Ngalamila who said the pests attacking maize were armyworms.

It has turned out that the pest which attacked Zambian fields is advancing across several African countries. The pest which has already ravaged maize in Zambia has also left a trail of damage in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Ghana, with reports also suggesting Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia are affected. Experts suggest the armyworms originated from the Americas and, admittedly, most farmers do not know how to manage the pest.

In Zambia, Government acted very quickly by supplying pesticides which proved potent against armyworms and stalk borers – thanks to President Edgar Lungu’s intervention. “We thank the President [Edgar Lungu] for his bold decision to make it possible to receive drugs under Government sponsorship. Ittakes political will to make such a bold decision in helping Zambians to grow their food – without whom most people would have gone hungry,” Colonel Kaisa said. “Ordinarily, Government would have left it to individual farmers. Any right-thinking Zambian should thank the President. Therewill be no starvation in Nyimba,” Col Kaisa said.

However, chemicals may not be sustainable given the country’s economic situation. Besides, Government did not manage to provide all the farmers with chemicals for armyworms and stalk borers. Farmers who did not receive the pesticides from Government were advised to buy, but most of them could not afford.

As a result, most farmers decided to innovate by using soap pastes such as Boom as a way of eliminating the pests. That was certainly not the prudent thing to do. Sustainability Chief Ndake told me at his Lwezi palace that there is need to do more investigations on the pests and educate farmers on how to manage them.

In The Conversation Africa, a news and analysis website of the Huff Post which is a collaboration between academics and journalists, Kenneth Wilson, a professor at Lancaster University’s Environment Centre, noted that in parts of their native range in the Americas, genetically-modified Bt maize is grown to combat the Fall armyworm. This may also be an option for South Africa and some other countries where GM [genetically modified] crops are already grown. “But many parts of Africa do not allow or welcome GM varieties,’’ Prof Wilson said in the February 13 edition of the publication.

Zambia is among countries that have not embraced genetically modified technology. “I have been involved in the development of a highly effective bio pesticide against African armyworm in Tanzania. But this still needs to go through the commercialisation and registration process, which is both costly and time-consuming,” Prof Wilson added. GM technology could be the sustainable solution to the problem of these destructive pests.

The National Biosafety Authority (NBA), which was established in 2013, has not given up sensitising the country on the benefits of embracing GM varieties. Last year, the NBA held sensitisation meetings with government officials and stakeholders on key provisions of the Biosafety Act and the role of the agency. The NBA is now targeting legislators.

The author is Zambia Daily Mail editorials editor