Experts have warned that the Fall Armyworm that has destroyed African crops could spread to Europe. Southern European climates, especially Spain and Italy, are particularly at risk.
The Fall Armyworm is a caterpillar that devours crops before turning into a moth. The pest attacks more than 80 crop and plant species and most often targets maize, sorghum, rice and sugarcane, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Since arriving from the United States two years ago, the Fall Armyworm has spread to over 38 African countries, making it one of the largest and most destructive pest invasions to ever strike the continent.
The destruction caused by Fall Armyworm has cost African maize, sorghum, rice and sugar cane farmers over €11 billion since the beginning of last year, according to the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) in the UK.
Distribution models developed by European Commission-recruited experts show that the Fall Armyworm could arrive in Europe by travelling across the Mediterranean or via the Sinai Peninsula and the Levant, reports The Telegraph. Fall Armyworm populations have reached the edges of the Sahara, but have yet to spread further north on the African continent.
“Butterflies like the Painted Lady can fly across the Sahara, so it is possible that Fall Armyworms could do the same,” explained Exeter University biologist Dr Regan Early. “If it becomes resident in Morocco then, absolutely, it will be making migrations into the south of Spain, up through France as far as the UK, potentially.”
Dr Early, who sits on the European Commission’s panel of experts for Fall Armyworm, said southern European climates are ideal breeding grounds for the pest, with southern Italy and Spain being especially “suitable for the establishment of Fall Armyworm populations.”
If the pest does reach Europe, it could have devastating consequences for European crops.
The Fall Armyworm “is one of the deadliest crop pests in the world,” Boddupalli Prasanna, director of the Global Maize Programme at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), told The Telegraph.
Fall Armyworm moths quickly reproduce and have a strong flying ability, said Prasanna. “Each female moth can lay 1,000 to 1,500 eggs and each moth population can fly almost 100km per night.”
The pest has been difficult to contain and impossible to eradicate. It has plagued farmers in the US, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico for around a century, costing their governments hundreds of millions of euros each year.
Many of the genetically modified crops planted in the US are resistant to armyworm and other pests, which has helped to limit damage caused by the pest. Farmers in Europe, where more than half of EU member states have banned the cultivation of GMOs, are much more vulnerable, however.
The fall armyworm problem in Africa and beyond “has the potential to put hundreds of million at risk of hunger” Regina Eddy, head of the US government’s worldwide Fall Armyworm task force, told The Telegraph.
“The global community is committed to food security, as well as decreased poverty in Africa and increasing the nourishment of the population. The Fall Armyworm’s arrival threatens our ability to achieve all three,” warned Eddy.