Two species of crop-destroying fall armyworm caterpillars have been confirmed in Ghana and could spread across mainland Africa.
PIC: An armyworm caterpillar eating the kernels of a maize (corn) cob. (AFP/Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International)
A plague of pests spreading in Africa threatens crop harvests and food supplies for millions of people, and may endanger farming worldwide, an international NGO has warned.
Two species of crop-destroying fall armyworm caterpillars have been confirmed in Ghana and could spread across mainland Africa, according to the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI).
They could also spread beyond to Asia and the Mediterranean basin, threatening huge losses for millions of farmers, the centre said in a statement.
"Urgent action will be needed to prevent devastating losses to crops and farmers' livelihoods," CABI chief scientist Matthew Cock said.
"This is the first time it has been shown that both species or strains are established on mainland Africa," he added.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has called for an emergency meeting on the crisis later this month.
The armyworm caterpillar is an indigenous pest to the Americas, and it has previously been reported on the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, according to the FAO, as well as being spotted in other southern African nations.
Now that it has been confirmed in Ghana, scientists from CABI expect it to spread to other African countries "within a few years".
Threat to food security
Armyworm caterpillars have previously devastated vital crops such as maize, which is essential for food security in large parts of Africa.
The pest's larvae, according to CABI, attack the crop's growing points and burrow into the cobs.
Maize or corn accounts for almost 70 percent of total cereal production in southern Africa, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, with a large percentage grown directly for home consumption.
The pest is also known to have caused major damage to other economically important crops including rice, soybean and cotton.
Warning of the grave danger posed by the outbreak, the FAO on Friday announced an emergency regional meeting to be held on February 14-16 in Harare, after the pest was also identified in Zimbabwe.
"If the pest damage aggravates, it could dampen prospects for good crop harvests that is anticipated in the current farming season," the agency said in a statement.
Southern African nations are already reeling from the impact of two years of drought, affecting over 40 million people and reducing food availability by 15 percent, the FAO said.
While CABI confirmed the presence of the pest in Ghana, the FAO said Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa may also be affected.
Zambia in December ordered the national air force into action to control the plague of pests.
While Zambia has already spent $3 million on efforts to fight the plague, the FAO said the full extent of the damage across the affected region is not yet known.