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Plotting the fall of the armyworm

Kwa-Zulu Natal
Durban - It was detected in Limpopo before spreading to other provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal, with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development confirming the cases in late February.

The pest, said the national Department Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, was native to South and Central America and also occurred in the southern states of the US.

“The first detection in Africa was noted in January 2016 when it was reported from Nigeria. From there it spread to several other west African countries, and to central Africa by April 2016. Media reports from Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi indicated an outbreak during December 2016.”

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A woman carries water through a field of sorghum in drought-hit Masvingo, Zimbabwe. Experts say indigenous grains (as those pictured here) might be the answer to food security woes in southern Africa. Picture: Reuters

Unlike its African counterpart, Spodoptera exempta, said agriculture and sustainability organisation Biowatch, the worm favoured maize, and also ate important crops like sorghum, cotton, sunflower, groundnuts, soybean and many vegetables. Besides the leaves, it consumes the growing tips and reproductive parts of these plants.

Biowatch’s agro-ecology manager Lawrence Mkhaliphi said: “In a balanced agro-ecological farming system, crop and predator diversity minimises the damage from pest outbreaks. It’s time for a rapid transition to agro-ecological farming methods as these work with nature, and help to mitigate climate change - otherwise we are likely to see ever more frequent plagues of pests, droughts, floods and consequent famine.” Professor Gyebi Duodu of the University of Pretoria’s Department of Food Science, which conducts research on healthy foods made from indigenous grains, said small-scale crop producers were already producing sorghum and other crops in South Africa.

Duodu said: “This is an opportunity to boost production of these grains - if we can show they are health-promoting, it seeps back to farmers and boosts production of those crops.” Through his research, Duodu said he hoped to not only improve the health of many marginalised South Africans, but to stimulate the economy across the agro-food value chain. Indigenous grains like sorghum and millets, he said, also held the potential to improve South African diets and help develop small businesses. “Rapid urbanisation in Africa has adversely affected people’s dietary choices: we are not eating that healthily any more. In the interest of convenience, people are eating less of the indigenous whole grains and more of highly refined or energy-dense foods, which has brought about an increase in diet-related chronic disease, like diabetes, cancer and so on.”

Along with colleagues at Tshwane University of Technology, University of Limpopo and the North West University, Duodu is using these crops to develop foods such as porridges, biscuits and beverages.

“We are trying to draw people’s attention back to the positive aspects of our indigenous grains.”

Duodu hopes to take the research forward into the next phase - testing the health-promoting effects of these foods in animals and eventually humans. Biowatch - which supports smallholder farmers in northern KwaZulu-Natal in practising agro-ecology - said this included promoting growing, eating and saving the seeds of indigenous and traditional crops.

In the communities in which Biowatch works these include sorghum, finger millet, jugo beans, mung beans, cow peas, peanuts and sesame, together with various greens.

“These provide families with complete and nutritious meals that include healthy fats, whole grains and proteins. These crops are also ideally suited to local climatic conditions. Maize has also become a traditional food over centuries of use.

“However, the ‘traditional’ maize that the farmers grow is very different to modern hybrids,” says the organisation.Farmer maize seed is locally adapted, grows well with readily available animal manures and compost, and is more filling and far tastier.

“Unfortunately, a globally organised industrial food system is displacing healthier indigenous foods.”

The Mercury

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