Fall Armyworm attack: Maharashtra grappling with the chaos

While the deadly pest has infested close to 15 districts of Maharashtra, many farmers lack any knowledge about it

By Gajanan Khergamker
Published: Thursday 28 February 2019
Photo: Gajanan Khergamker
Photo: Gajanan Khergamker Photo: Gajanan Khergamker

Discovered and confirmed only last year, the Fall Army Worm (FAW) has now been detected across 15 districts of Maharashtra. As farmers fight drought, indebtedness and falling crop prices, the latest infestation has wrecked havoc across the state. Lack of knowledge and awareness among them as well as state officials further exacerbates the problem. 

FAW was first reported by entomologists CM Kalleshwara Swamy and Sharanabasappa in Karnataka in June 2018 in the maize research fields at the University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences, Shimoga. 

In Maharashtra, FAW was detected on August 29, 2018 in a maize field at Tandulwadi village in Malshiras tehsil of Solapur district by farmer Ganesh Babar.

“Today, six months later, the infestation has spread across Maharashtra in Vidarbha, Marathwada and especially in western Maharashtra,” says Ankush Chormule agronomist and entomologist with the 6th Grain Corp — an agribusiness.

“In close to 15 districts of Maharashtra, surveyed by 6th Grain Corporation, the presence of FAW has been confirmed,” he adds.

The most-preferred host for FAW is sweetcorn, followed by maize and jowar (sorghum) where heavy infestation has been observed. In some rare cases, it has been discovered on the sugarcane crop as well.

On September 22, 2018, FAW was detected and reported on sugarcane crop in Ghogaon village, Palus tehsil, Sangli, according to a report published in the Journal of Entomology and Zoology Studies in 2019. 

“In India, FAW has already damaged crops in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. The damage caused by FAW is colossal as it has a 30 to 40 day-life cycle, and one moth can lay upto 1,000 eggs at a time. The FAW larvae scrapes out leaves causing a lot of damage to the crop,” says Chormule.

“I could identify the FAW infestation because just a day prior, on August 28, I had read an article in AgroWon newspaper on how to identify FAW that was at risk of spreading from Karnataka to Maharashtra,” recalls farmer Ganesh Babar.

Chormule, who has been active in this area, had even detailed tips, across news portals and social media through interactive groups, to help farmers detect FAW in their crops.

A BSc graduate and farmer, Babar (30) immediately contacted Chormule who went to the spot to collect samples and send them to the National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources (NBAIR), Bangalore, for identification.

NBAIR is the nodal agency for collection, characterisation, documentation, conservation, exchange, research and utilisation of agriculturally important insect resources for sustainable agriculture in India.

The identification is done through DNA sequencing, and after matching the model DNA sequences of worms from all over the world. NBAIR confirmed the samples were of FAW.

“I could identify the FAW because of the detailed identification tips provided in the article,” recalls Babar, who cultivates 15 acres of his 25-acre land with maize, sorghum (jowar) and sugarcane.

FAW can be easily identified with the unique, inverted ‘Y’ shape mark on its head. Four dark spots form a square on the second-to-last body segment, while elevated spots occur dorsally on the body.

So, when Babar first identified FAW, he took images of the worm and uploaded them on the farmers’ social media group. “FAW’s growth is very swift as compared to other pests till date,” says Babar.

“When I first saw FAW six months back, there were barely one to two worms on a leaf. But now, there are four to five worms on each leaf. Their rate of growth is scary,” he adds.

“An immediate solution for farmers is to spray pesticides. However, pesticides fail to restrain their growth for long and lose their efficacy within days, leaving us with no option but to repeat the use every 10 to 12 days to keep FAW at bay,” maintains Babar.

This, for obvious reasons, translates into a higher cost of maintenance for the farmers proving to be a double whammy. For one, there is a surge in expenditure, and concurrently, there is a distinct fall in the crop yield too.

Babar, for instance, has suffered a 10 per cent loss in profit in the last year — translating to a production loss of two-three quintals per acre.

In December 2018, Union Minister of State for Agriculture Parshottam Rupala told the Parliament that FAW had affected maize crop in approximately 81,000 hectares (ha) in Karnataka, 1,740 ha in Telangana, 1,341 ha in Andhra Pradesh and 315 ha in Tamil Nadu.

In the first week of February 2019, a Maharashtra government report put out the estimated losses caused by FAW — stating that in Beed and Satara districts, 386 ha of maize plantation and 958 ha of jowar was infested.

Owing to this colossal damage caused by FAW and the concurrent dearth, maize earlier sold at Rs 1,200 per quintal is now being sold almost at Rs 1,900 per quintal.

The yield has dipped drastically owing to drought and FAW infestation. This is expected to continue, even get worse in 2019. India will have to increase the import of maize owing to the decrease in production and yield.

Also, in Maharashtra, the widespread poultry industry that depends directly on maize for feed will be adversely hit. Subsequently, prices of poultry products, too, will rise adversely to match the surge in expenses for the feed.

Additionally, maize is used as cattle fodder. With the dip in crop yield, there is even lesser fodder for the cattle. So, there arises the need to buy more ‘clean’ fodder for cattle, thereby escalating costs.

The costs for individual farmers rearing cattle and those involved in the dairy trade are likely to soar. Hence, there is a risk to the food security due to increasing FAW infestation.

Most Maharashtra farmers buckling under the burden of bank loans have been finding it difficult to repay the loans, with further losses triggered by FAW.

Babar, for instance, has to pay off a loan of Rs 4 lakh in the next two years irrespective of the losses he incurs due to drought and FAW infestation.

While Babar is educated and can avail the latest information on FAW online and through social media groups, his less-informed counterparts have little option but to approach local Krishi Kendras for advice and waste money on generic pesticides that may not help.

“In order to prevent this from happening, there is the need to use pesticides through Integrated Pest Management and not in isolation,” says Chormule.

The need for further research on FAW and how to combat it is being felt now more than ever. One way to stop the spread of FAW is to use pheromone traps that catch the moths.

“The prices of maize are expected to increase in sync with the spread of FAW infestation. In time, FAW will affect sugarcane as it is grown all over Maharashtra, and may spread to cotton and rice as well,” says Chormule.

Maharashtra’s educated farmers are unanimous in their view that the state government must spread awareness on FAW among the uneducated farmers and apprise them on the ways to tackle it.

The government, they feel, should assist in the installation of traps and treatment processes. “With most of Maharashtra’s agricultural officers completely oblivious about FAW and its threat, the state looks like a sitting duck,” says Chormule.

(This is a part of a series of stories tracking the world’s deadliest pest attack. Read the other stories here and here)

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