M illions of people are set to face food shortages across Africa in 2017, as farmers in the south battle ‘fall armyworms’ that are devastating their crops while an ongoing drought in the east causes a dramatic rise in the price of staple foods.
This week global experts held an emergency meeting in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, to try to find a solution to the ruinous effects of the armyworm. Originally from North America, the insect has been destroying crops in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique.
The worm gained its name from the way it moves across fields, supposedly in army-style units. Scientists are unsure how it entered the continent, but it was first found on the island of Sao Tome and Principe, off the coast of Gabon, in January 2016.
The pest eats maize and other cereal crops, but is not picky, having been found on groundnuts, cotton and potatoes. It destroys three-quarters of the crops it attacks. Currently the worm is impossible to eradicate but southern African governments are trialing both aerial insecticide spraying and more localised solutions such as digging sand trenches or employing birds.
Crops in eastern Africa have a more familiar enemy: drought. Yields have fallen for three years in a row and some cereals have doubled in price. In Somalia, maize and sorghum harvests were estimated to be 75% lower than usual, according to Laura Hammond, a Horn of Africa expert at SOAS, who said the country is “sliding towards famine”. Ethiopia is suffering its worst drought in half a century. The latest numbers from the UN suggest 24 million people are facing food insecurity in the wider region.
Poor rainfall and the cyclical El Niño weather phenomenon are seen as the chief suspects. A new study published by the American Meteorological Society suggests that food crises will become commonplace as the continent bears the brunt of climate change.