Fall Armyworm attack: Odisha braces itself for the pest

After its attack last year, the state agriculture department issued advisories to all districts and distributed leaflets listing preventive and curative measures

By Priya Ranjan Sahu
Published: Monday 04 March 2019
Photo: Priya Ranjan Sahu

During kharif 2018, the Union government sent an alert to the Odisha agriculture department warning of the Fall Armyworm (FAW) infestation on maize cultivation in some states. It directed the department to undertake a survey in maize growing districts in the state.

Accordingly, the department formed two teams in August 2018 comprising plant protection officers of the department, professors from entomology department at Odisha University of Agriculture Technology (OUAT), and entomologists from National Rice Research Institute of Cuttack and Central Integrated Pest Management Centre.

One team visited Gajapati, Rayagada and Nabarangpur districts, while the other went to Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar. The first team reported that there was mild FAW attack in Gajapati and Rayagada, and it did not find any traces of the pest in Nabarangpur. The second team, too, did not find the pest.

However, the office of deputy director (agriculture) and Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Nuapada district confirmed FAW attack in some districts. Besides, during rabi 2018, mild FAW attacks were reported from the Athagarh sub-division of Cuttack and the maize farm at OUAT campus in Bhubaneswar.

Odisha produces over 7 lakh tonnes of maize every year. The FAW attacks went unreported in local media as there was “no or minimum damage” to the crops in maize growing areas. The farmers in those areas were also not aware of the pest.

But it has set warning bells ringing in the agriculture department and academic circles this year due to the potential danger of infestation.

Many other states have reported FAW attack for the first time in 2018. It was reported from the maize fields of Maharashtra, following which it was found in Karnataka, Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal.

Agriculture officials said the pest is suspected to have come from Africa, where it has caused rampant maize crop damage in 44 countries. “This pest attacks the crop in vegetative or growing stage. It attacks the young growing unopened leaves,” said Bhagaban Patra, professor and head of the department, entomology, OUAT.

“The state government got the information about the pest in time and monitored it properly,” he added. However, he stressed on the importance of being on alert.

FAW attacks a crop within 45 days of sowing. As it attacks the unopened leaves of the crop, the quantum of damage can be huge. FAW is polyphagus, which means that it can attack multiple crops.

Its lifecycle comprises of four stages — egg, larval, pupa and adult moth. The pest attacks a crop at the larval stage only. “Other stages are harmless to the crop,” Patra said.

The larval stage lasts for about 10 to 15 days, depending on the temperature — if the temperature is higher, the duration is shorter. On the other hand, damp temperature increases the duration of larval stage.

Experts said that climate change also contributes to the changing temperatures, thus festering FAW. However,  the phenomenon had not been ascertained yet.

FAW belongs to the same specie as tobacco cutworm or cotton leafworm (Spodoptera Litura) but the genus is different. One can identify FAW from the ‘Y’ shaped mark on the face of the larval.

According to agriculture department officials, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have reported attack on the sugarcane crop. At least 80 types of crops, including bajra, johar, ragi, paddy etc, might also be vulnerable to the pest in the initial days when their leaves are green.

As it is a new pest for India, extensive research on it is yet to be taken up. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources, Bangalore, has taken up a coordinated research project on biological control of crop pests across India. The project has different centres all over the country, including one at OUAT. 

The agriculture department officials refer to the pest as ‘leda poka’ — local name for cotton leafworm to make farmers understand how it eats up green leaves of crops. “I had never seen any pest eating up the crop few days after sowing. It (FAW) looked like leda poka, which attacked the ripe crop,” said Jata Naik, a maize farmer from Nuapada.

Naik did not suffer extensive crop damage because he got rid of the pest by sprinkling insecticides in time, as recommended by agriculture department officials last year. However, he is apprehensive about the pest attack this year too.  

After its attack last year, the department issued advisories to all districts and distributed thousands of leaflets that contained preventive and curative measures. It can be controlled with the use of insecticides and applying beneficiary insects that feed on the larval at the initial stage.

The state government has also formed a committee — under the chairmanship of Agriculture Director M Muthukumar — with the aim to monitor and manage strategies on FAW infestation and ensure that it does not spread.

“The committee has decided to regularly monitor and supervise the maize growing districts and to create awareness among field level officials and farmers about the pest,” said Muthukumar. 

The National Rice Research Institute has been urged to take up a project to prepare ‘pheromone trap’ — which can sexually attract male FAW moth using an artificial odour.

Further, to cope with an attack, the agriculture department has stored trichogramma parasite — an insect that feeds on FAW — in its disposal bio-control laboratory. Officials said in time of need, these will be supplied to the farmers.

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