Multipronged strategy needed to tackle Fall Armyworm threat in India

In July, 2018 ICAR issued the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) infection on maize in the districts of Karnataka, which has since then also been reported from Tamil Nadu and Telangana. The pest, a native to tropical regions of the western hemisphere from the United States to Argentina, has already caused havoc in Africa by causing losses to tune of billions of dollars. The concerns have already been raised that it could spread throughout Asia to become a major threat to global food security. The pest was first spotted on the African continent only two years ago, is best known for attacking maize and has a host range of more than 80 plant species, including rice, vegetables, groundnuts, cotton, sorghum and soya beans.

The food security of millions of people across Asia could be at risk if the pest is not contained. It is suspected that fall armyworm arrived in India either through human-aided transport or natural migration as the pest can fly hundreds of kilometers in one night. Invasive species like fall armyworm cause losses to the tune of $1.4 trillion every year globally, however, infestations generally go undetected or untreated in initial stages, prolonging their spread and making their control more difficult.

The strategy that need to be adopted to tackle the Fall Armyworm threat in India should be multipronged and improve upon what is currently being done in African countries. Some of the elements of such strategy in short term should include the following

  1. Enhanced monitoring of the pest movement using ICT tools and imaging analysis form satellites
  2. A mechanism of early warning systems to neighboring states and countries
  3. Integrated Pest Management[1] including (i) Chemical, (b) Cultural and (c) Biological approaches
  4. Practical guide for farmers and government extension workers pest management
  5. Increased extension efforts

The strategies have been well defined by CIMMYT and other stakeholders for Fall Armyworm control in Africa, however, this needs to be tackled at war footing in India to effectively control the pest and also prevent its spread. The threat is here and it needs to be tackled now with all the focus else we may be facing a global food crisis.

In the long run, both the government and private sector players should focus on developing pest resistant hybrids with both conventional and modern approaches like genome editing of crops that will reduce the time-to-market of these varieties by several years. The government also need to adopt a more flexible approach for regulatory approval of crops developed by genome editing and genetic modification that could pave the way for deploying GM crop varieties expressing lepidopteran resistance genes. The regulatory authorities would do well to take the cue regulatory agencies from USA and Canada who have decided not to regulate genome edited crops and treat them similar to the ones developed by conventional breeding.

A consolidated effort by all stakeholders and some policy level decisions on part of the government will help in tackling the current threat and will also develop a framework for handling future threats more effectively For example establishing a disease and pest monitoring mechanism for invasive pests globally as well as at national level would go a long way in increasing the readiness to handle any future threats. By making the dynamic policies that can be easily modified to encompass continuous technological changes and new product development will lead to increase in the availability of the resistant varieties and hybrids of different crops to the farmers through advanced genetic engineering tools.

[1] Fall Armyworm in Africa: A guide for integrated pest management.


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