fall-armyworm-frontal-MER-563x744FAW on corn leavesfall-armyworm-frontal-MER-563x744

Maize damaged by the fall armyworm, Spodoptera frujiperda

Photos courtesy of Marlin E. Rice


Fall Armyworm Workshop for East Africa

Harmony Hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 14-15, 2017


The Fall Armyworm (FAW), Spodoptera frugiperda, a native to the tropics and sub tropics of North and South America, is a polyphagous pest attacking more than 80 different plant species, including maize. Maize is a major food staple in sub-Saharan Africa upon which more than 300 million people depend. Depending on the degree of infestation, the FAW can cause huge losses in maize yields and in some cases, total crop loss.

This pest has recently invaded Africa and is ravaging crops in more than 20 countries. It was first reported in Nigeria, West Africa, in early 2016. It soon spread to southern Africa in late 2016 and by early 2017 was confirmed to be in East Africa. If it is not effectively controlled, it is expected to cause $3bn loss to maize in Africa along with serious food shortages expected in the next year.

Needed action

Rapid action, immense awareness creation, and technological innovation, along with national, regional and international collaboration are required to thwart the threat of the fall armyworm in order to avoid severe economic losses among smallholder farmers across Africa. Crucial concerted efforts from international research centers, national research and extension programs, international development organizations, policy makers, and donor communities in East Africa are required to develop and deploy an effective integrated pest management strategy, which can provide sustainable solutions to effectively tackle the adverse effects of the FAW. Millions of East African farmers are currently on the road to recovery from last year’s shocking drought that resulted in a humanitarian crisis. Now, they are facing this new threat to their livelihood.

Workshop objectives

To effectively fight this pest, the IPM Innovation Lab/ Virginia Tech and USAID, in partnership with icipe, is organizing a regional FAW awareness and management workshop. This workshop will bring stakeholders and experts from the United States, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, and Tanzania to share their experiences and challenges in dealing with the FAW. The workshop will also include discussions on needed action in terms of research and development in the region. The results and recommendations made from this workshop will be used as feedback to design an effective management strategy to manage the FAW in East Africa and beyond.

On behalf of the workshop organizers

Tadele Tefera

Country Head icipe Ethiopia, PI for IPM Innovation Lab Grains IPM for East Africa Project and IAPPS Coordinator, Region V East Africa




Why a problem of plenty is hurting India’s farmers

By Soutik Biswas. Reblogged from BBC News.

Farmers are on the boil again in India. In western Maharashtra state, they have been on strike for a week in some seven districts now, spilling milk on the streets, shutting down markets, protesting on the roads and attacking vegetable trucks. In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, curfew has been imposed after five farmers were killed in clashes with police on Tuesday. Last month, farmers in southern Telangana and Andhra Pradesh staged protests and burnt their red chilli crop.

The farmers are demanding waivers on farm loans and higher prices for their crops. For decades now, farming in India has been blighted by drought, small plot sizes, a depleting water table, declining productivity and lack of modernisation.

Half of its people work in farms, but farming contributes only 15% to India’s GDP. Put simply, farms employ a lot of people but produce too little. Crop failures trigger farm suicides with alarming frequency.

The present unrest is, however, rooted in a problem of plenty.

In Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the farmers are on the streets because a bumper harvest fuelled by a robust monsoon has led to a crop glut. Prices of onions, grapes, soya-bean, fenugreek and red chilli, for example, have nosedived.

In most places, the governments have been less than swift in paying the farmer more for the crops – the government sets prices for farming in India and procures crops from farmers to incentivise production and ensure income support.

So why has a bumper crop led to a crisis in farming? Some believe that the price crash is the result of India’s controversial withdrawal of high value banknotes – popularly called demonetisation – late last year.

Indian farmers

The ban, surprisingly, did not hurt planting as farmers “begged and borrowed” from their kin and social networks to pay for fertilisers, pesticides and labour, Harish Damodaran, rural affairs and agriculture editor at The Indian Express newspaper told me.

So more land was actually cropped, and bountiful rains led to a bumper crop. But traders, Mr Damodaran believes, possibly did not have enough cash to pick up the surplus crop.

“Although the chronic cash shortage has passed, there is still a liquidity problem. I have been talking to traders who say there’s not enough cash, which remains the main medium of credit in villages. I suspect the price crash has been caused by a lack of cash.”

‘Exaggerated fears’

A prominent trader in Lasangaon, Asia’s biggest onion market in Maharashtra, a state which accounts for a third of India’s annual production, told me that concerns over shortage of cash leading to crop price crashes were “exaggerated”.

“There has been a good crop for sure, but a lot of traders have picked up crop, paying cash, issuing cheques and using net banking. Some of the glut and wastage has been due to the ongoing strike, when trucks of vegetables have been attacked on the highways,” Manoj Kumar Jain said.

Still others believe the main reason for the ongoing crises actually rooted in India’s chronic failure of coping with surplus harvests because of lack of adequate food storage and processing capacity.

“If the rains are good, you end up with a glut of crops and prices crash. The glut only highlights the inefficiencies of the farming value chain and hits farmers,” Ashok Gulati, an agriculture specialist at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, told me.

Take onions, for example. The vegetable is 85% water and loses weight quickly.

A labourer spreads onions for sorting at a wholesale vegetable market in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh

India is one of the world’s biggest onion producers. Image: Reuters

In Lasangaon, traders buy the crop from farmers and store the onions on concrete in tarpaulin-covered sheds. If the weather stays right, 3-5% of the stored crop is wasted in storage. But if the mercury soars, more onions dry up, lose weight and 25-30% of the stored crop could be wasted.

In a modern cold storage, however, onions can be stored in wooden boxes at 4C. Crop wastage is less than 5%. Storage costs about a rupee (less than a US cent) for every kilogram of onion a month.

So the government needs to make sure – or even subsidise – to keep the vegetable affordable to consumers once it reaches the retail market.

“We need to make the supply storage chain so efficient that the customer, farmer and the storage owner are happy. Unfortunately India hasn’t been able to make that happen,” Dr Gulati said.

Poor storage

For one, India just doesn’t have enough cold storages. There are some 7,000 of them, mostly stocking potatoes in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Resultantly, fruits and vegetables perish very quickly. Unless India hoards food effectively, a bumper crop can easily spell doom for farmers.

Secondly, there’s not enough processing of food happening to ensure that crops don’t perish or go waste. Take onions, again. One way to dampen volatility in onion prices is to dehydrate the bulb and make these processed onions more widely available. Currently, less than 5% of India’s fruit and vegetables is processed.

Thirdly, farmers in India plant for new harvest looking back at crop prices in the previous year. If the crop prices were healthy, they sow more of the same, hoping for still better prices. If the rains are good, a crop glut can happen easily, and lead to extraordinary fall in prices. Farmers hold on to the crops for a while, and then begin distress sales.

Farmers sprinkle fertilizers on a paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, February 1, 2017

Half of its people work in farms, but farming contributes only 15% to India’s GDP. Image: Reuters

“You need to allow future prices through contract farming, not cropping based on last year’s prices,” says Dr Gulati.

Radical measures

Clearly, farming policies in India need a radical overhaul. Punjab, India’s “granary”, is a perfect example. At a time when India does not suffer food shortages, water-guzzling wheat and rice comprise 80% of its cropped area and deplete groundwater. Rising production of cereals has meant that government has been giving paltry rises to the farmers while buying paddy and wheat, eroding their profitability.

“They [the policies] are distorting the choices that farmers make – those who should be finding ways to grow vegetables, which grow more expensive every year, are instead growing wheat we no longer need,” says Mihir Sharma, author of Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.

But the best that the governments here do is to quickly raise crop buying prices and alleviate the farmers’ suffering. Faced with a crop glut at home, the newly appointed BJP government in Uttar Pradesh was smart enough to promptly raise the procurement price of potatoes – and announce a controversial farm loan waiver – and quell a simmering farmers’ revolt. The government in Madhya Pradesh, ruled by the same party, failed to act in time. Now it says it will pay more to buy off the surplus onions. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Read the full BBC article.






Invasive alien plant control assessed for the Kruger National Park in South Africa

June 6, 2017

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-06-invasive-alien-kruger-national-south.html#jCp

Sunset Dam, Kruger National Park, South Africa, is heavily infested with water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes). The population was effectively eliminated by a combination of biological and chemical control (right). Credit: Brian W. van Wilgen

Along with urban and agricultural encroachment and pollution mitigation, managing invasive alien species is a key intervention needed to protect biodiversity. Unfortunately, on a global scale there are not enough funds to meet the requirements for effective conservation everywhere, which means that scarce funds need to be allocated where they can be used most efficiently.

In order to find out whether the historical measures undertaken at the Kruger National Park in South Africa have been effective and optimised, researchers led by Prof. Brian W. van Wilgen of Stellenbosch University assessed the invasive alien plant control operations in the protected area over several decades. Their findings and recommendations are published in the open access journal Neobiota.

While the first invasive alien plants in the national park, which stretches over two million hectares, were recorded back in 1937, it was not until the mid-1950s that attempts at controlling them began. By the end of the century, the invasive alien plant control program had expanded substantially.

However, the scientists found out that despite several invasive alien species having been effectively managed, the overall control effort was characterised by several shortcomings, including inadequate goal-setting and planning, the lack of a sound basis on which to apportion funds, and the absence of any monitoring of control effectiveness.


Lantana camara along the Sabie River in the Kruger National Park have required intensive mechanical and chemical control to clear. Credit: Brian W. van Wilgen” 

Dense invasions of the West Indian Lantana (Lantana camara) along the Sabie River in the Kruger National Park have required intensive mechanical and chemical control to clear. Credit: Brian W. van Wilgen

Furthermore, the researchers report that over one third (40%) of the funding has been spent on species of lower concern. Some of these funds have been allocated so that additional employment could be created onsite, or because of a lack of clear evidence about the impact of certain species. As a result of their observations, the team concludes three major strategies when navigating invasive alien species control operations.

Firstly, a thorough assessment of the impact of individual species needs to be carried out prior to allocating substantial funds. On the other hand, in case of a new invasion, management needs to be undertaken immediately before any further spread of the population and the subsequent rise in control costs. Monitoring and assessments have to be performed regularly in order to identify any new threats that could potentially be in need of prioritisation over others.


Opuntia stricta in the Kruger National Park, South Africa have been effectively reduced to low numbers with biological control (right). Credit: Brian W. van Wilgen”

Secondly, the scientists suggest that the criteria used to assign priorities to invasive alien species should be formally documented, so that management can focus on defensible priorities. They propose using a framework employing mechanisms of assessments used in the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Global Invasive Species Database.

The authors also point out that re-allocating current funds to species of greater concern is needed for that cannot be managed via less expensive solutions such as biological control. Taking care of alien plant populations living outside of the park, but in close proximity, is also crucial for the prevention of re-invasions of already cleared areas.

Explore further: Denial of invasive species threat worries scientists

More information: Brian W. van Wilgen et al, An assessment of the evolution, costs and effectiveness of alien plant control operations in Kruger National Park, South Africa, NeoBiota (2017). DOI: 10.3897/neobiota.35.12391

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-06-invasive-alien-kruger-national-south.html#jCp



Lasers for weed control


science d-logo

Combatting weeds with lasers

June 7, 2017
Universität Bonn
A robot automatically identifies weeds in a field and combats them with a short laser pulse. Sustainable agriculture, which avoids the use of herbicides as far as possible, could benefit from this smart idea.

A robot automatically identifies weeds in a field and combats them with a short laser pulse. Sustainable agriculture, which avoids the use of herbicides as far as possible, could benefit from this smart idea. Dr. Julio Pastrana and Tim Wigbels from the Institute of Geodesy and Geoinformation at the University of Bonn are convinced of this. With an EXIST Business Start-up Grant from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, the scientists are now driving forward the development of this practical tool for field work.

Those who want a rich harvest need to drive back weeds so that the crops can grow better. In organic agriculture, herbicides are ruled out as they are considered toxic chemicals, and unwanted plants must be laboriously weeded out. If the expectations of Dr. Julio Pastrana and Tim Wigbels are correct, this time-consuming work can soon be taken care of by robots.

Laser-based weed control can eliminate herbicides

The computer scientists in the Photogrammetry Laboratory at the Institute for Geodesy and Geoinformation at the University of Bonn are currently developing a novel system: using cameras on an all-terrain robot vehicle or even a tractor add-on, unwanted wild weeds should be automatically identified in the various crops and combatted in a targeted way. “The robot shoots the leaves of the unwanted plants with short laser pulses, which causes a weakening in their vitality,” reports Dr. Pastrana. “It is thus predicted that we will no longer need to use herbicides on our fields and the environment will be protected,” adds Wigbels.

Before forming the start-up, Dr. Pastrana worked in robotics and researched automated image interpretation techniques with Prof. Cyrill Stachniss from the Institute of Geodesy and Geoinformation at the University of Bonn. Dr. Pastrana completed his doctorate on the detection and classification of weeds with the aid of statistical models at Leibniz Universität Hannover and built an earlier version of the robot there with a colleague. Wigbels studied Computer Engineering at RWTH Aachen University and then worked in software development within a company.

The researchers are now pushing forward their start-up “Escarda Technologies” for one year at the University of Bonn with an EXIST grant from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. “It is now a case of finding investors and further developing the business plan for the start-up,” says Wigbels. The researchers are also using the funding from the Ministry to buy the parts needed to construct a prototype.

Prof. Stachniss is supporting the start-up in various ways: Pastrana and Wigbels can thus use laboratories at the institution and consult with colleagues there. What’s more, Rüdiger Wolf from Technology Transfer at the University of Bonn helped the start-up to submit the application for the EXIST funding. “The advice was very helpful,” says Dr. Pastrana, delighted. Both scientists would also like to participate in the start-up round tables organized by Technology Transfer in order to benefit from the experience of other start-ups. The EXIST grant also enables them to attend training programs to prepare them for the challenges of independence.

“The idea combines innovative robots with a current sustainability topic,” says transfer advisor Rüdiger Wolf. He says the analyses of the market and competition for such an application are sound. Pastrana is convinced of the benefits of the laser-based technique for new agricultural machinery: “Our aim is to contribute to achieving more sustainable agriculture.” At the Bonn Idea Exchange by the Bonn/Rhein-Sieg Chamber of Commerce and Industry, both founders won an award for the best start-up idea.

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Universität Bonn. “Combatting weeds with lasers.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 June 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170607094152.htm>.