China’s food industry has a new problem to contend with, on top of the African swine fever threatening one third of its pork production.
The fall armyworm has now invaded South China.
The crop-eating pest first detected in China in January has spread to about 8,500 hectares of grain production in the Yunnan, Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou, Hunan, and Hainan provinces.
Chinese authorities have employed a new emergency action plan to monitor and respond to the pest, which has no natural predators in China.
It may reduce production and crop quality of maize, rice, wheat, sorghum, sugarcane, cotton, soybean, and peanuts.
Experts say there is a high probability the pest will spread across all of China’s grain production area within 12 months.
Fall armyworm is an invasive plant pest which is endemic to North America.
The pest consumes plant material and grain of more than 80 species of plants, including corn, rice, wheat, sorghum, sugarcane, cotton, soybean, and peanuts.
Since 2016, it has caused extensive economic damage across Africa.
In 2017, the pest reached South Asia, and South East Asia by July 2018.
The Chinese ministry of agriculture and rural affairs (MARA) is taking emergency measures to monitor and control the spread of the armyworm.
Chinese officials reportedly administer a national crop protection monitoring and surveillance program with offices in each local agricultural bureau, implementing a trapping and scouting program. On March 18, MARA issued a 2019 fall armyworm prevention and control technology plan pilot programme.
The plan recommends adoption of prevention and control measures on more than 90% of the affected area, and environmentally-friendly technical measures, such as crop rotation, across more than 30% of the affected area.
To mitigate the armyworm threat, Chinese producers mainly rely on chemicals; biological controls such as fungi or bacteria; or crop management practices such as crop rotation.
There are currently no pesticides registered to control the armyworm for any crops.
The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) is working with domestic and foreign crop protection companies to identify appropriate chemical and non-chemical control measures.
In March, the Shenzhen Bailebao Biological Agriculture Technology Company and CAAS announced the joint development of a preliminary pheromone agent and trapping product to manage the armyworm.
On April 22, CAAS identified 21 already registered chemical pesticides used to control other insects (like Spodoptera spp) that have demonstrated mitigation of the armyworm’s spread and impact.
It is important to note that most farmers in China do not have the financial resources and training needed to effectively manage the armyworm.
Even if a mitigation programme is employed, costly control measures (mainly chemical sprays) will drag producer margins into negative territory for farmers of most crops affected.
Armyworm management requires farmers to closely monitor their fields and to time their spraying efforts to target the pest during its larval stage of development.
The armyworm has become established in South China and is projected to begin moving northward as spring temperatures rise, and crops develop in major growing areas in Central China, the North China Plain, and eventually North East China.
Seasonal factors such as the timing of the monsoon season in September and October, 2019, and the number of typhoons, will influence the timing, distribution, and impact of the armyworm in North East China and the North China Plain, China’s principal grain producing regions.
CAAS experts report that there is a high probability that the pest will spread across all of China’s grain production area within the next 12 months.
An expert with CAAS projects that by the end of May 2019, it has a high probability to spread to Guangdong, as well as Hainan, Guizhou, and Hunan provinces.
The pest may even spread further to Sichuan, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces.
While it is difficult to assess the production loss associated with armyworms, major changes to agricultural practices across China can be anticipated as producers will need to adopt crop rotation as one of the control practices.
Environmental conditions in South China are similar to those in parts of South Asia and South East Asia, where farmers have been dealing with the pest for the past two years.
In these regions, chemical pesticides and rainy weather have mitigated the spread and impact of the disease.