Like the locusts that attacked the people of Egypt in the Biblical days, so has the destruction been across our farmlands with the invasion of Fall Armyworms.
Despite repeated assurances from officials that the invasion is under control, farmers in Ghana continue to reel under the pressure of these novel pests devouring their crops. In this edition of Hotline Documentaries christened ‘RAMPAGING SOLDIERS,’ Joy News takes you on a tour of some farming communities to assess the level of damage that these pests have caused to fields, and how farmers are struggling to recover. The documentary also discusses how the pest invasion will impact government’s flagship Planting for Food and Jobs Policy.
Pest attack is a major threat to food security all over the world with an estimated one fourth of crops produced being destroyed by them. African farmers have battled pests for several centuries now, including the African Armyworm. But for the first time last year, the Fall Army worm, a pest native to the America’s found invaded Africa and Ghana, destroying crops beyond salvage.
The name Fall Army Worm is deceptive. They are not exactly worms. They are the caterpillar or young versions of butterfly. They feed on more than 100 plant species, including maize, rice, sorghum, cocoa, vegetables, and cotton. Fall Army Worm has a voracious appetite, and can reproduce and spread quickly given the right environmental conditions.
Uniqueness of Fall Armyworm
Dr. Michael Osei Adu of the Crop Science Department of the University of Cape Coast says the pests have unique traits that make it difficult to control them. “They reproduce quite quickly. Adult female can lay up to 1000 eggs in its life time. The eggs mature very quickly and within 10 days or so, we have the larvae that then begins to destroy crops,” he explained in an interview with Joy News.
“Most of these ‘lepidopterans’ cease development when environmental conditions are not favourable but the Fall Armyworms lay eggs all the time. They also lay eggs in hidden places either at the back of the leaves or in the funnel of the plants. So use of contact pesticides are not very effective in controlling them,” Dr. Adu added.
Farmers and other farm workers have also observed the unique abilities of the Fall Armyworm to cause vast damage. “I have never seen these kinds of pests on farms since I started my work as an extension agent. They defecate on the maize and then they are unable to grow properly. My 3-acre maize farm is two and half months old. It should have been ready for harvest by now but because of the worm, this has not been possible,” Frank Aboagye, a farmer and Agric extension officer in the Central Region explained to Joy News.
“The initial stage of the infestation looks like the ordinary worms that affect our crops by getting to the later stages, they destroy everything. They are not like the usual Armyworms that affect our farms,” farmer and District Chief Executive for Assin South Derrick Owusu Ambrose noted.
The first time farmers in Ghana saw the Fall Armyworm invasion was in 2016. They destroyed an estimated 4,000 hectares of crop fields. When the farming season ended, they vanished. Only to resurface in March this year at the start of the planting season. Government initially downplayed the devastation they could possibly cause.
“We are confident that by Friday, the chemicals will be out to the affected districts… We are sure by that by the weekend, the spraying will start in earnest to be completed in a number of days. The experience we gained from last year was that the army worm is very sensitive to the chemicals we applied and we are confident that once we have adequate application, we will be able to eliminate the danger,” Agric Minister Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie told a media briefing in Accra in May this year.
Dr Akoto O. Afriyie
He gave the following re-assurance in an exclusive interview with Joy News. “This is very limited. Armyworm as of last week had destroyed 1,400 hectares. That’s all. But it’s under control…. By the end of this week, all the affected farms would have been sprayed and that will be the end of armyworm,” he said confidently.
But that was not to be. Deputy Agric Minister Dr. Sagri Bambagni gave the following update when he appeared in parliament on 14th July to respond to questions on what is being done to control the pests. “Currently, the Fall Armyworm has spread to all the 10 regions of Ghana and is estimated to be affecting 112,812 hectares of farmlands with an estimated 14,330 hectares destroyed completely,” he told legislators.
A number of factors including the absence of adequate chemicals and ineffective pesticides being used by farmers is said to have been the cause of this spread. Across the country, farmers share harrowing tales about the devastation being caused by the Fall Armyworms. Kofi Gyamera is one of the farmers whose fields have been destroyed in the Assin South District. He laments repeated application of recommended chemicals have not helped stem the destruction of his two-acre corn field on which he invested more than GH¢4000.
“I have been farming for 13 years now. But this year, Fall Armyworm have invaded our farms. I have applied chemicals on 13 different occasions but still, they are on the farm. I have really suffered. They have destroyed three of my farms totally,” he said.
Most of the farms that have been destroyed belong to farmers who benefitted from subsidized inputs under government’s Planting for Food and Jobs Policy. Under the policy, farmers are supplied inputs at one-fourth the price. They are expected to pay another quarter of the price to government once they harvest and sell.
District Agric Officer, Jacob Degraft Sackey, is worried about the chances of farmers not making enough money to repay the investments but remain hopeful. “The Fall armyworm has affected the farmers. We are hoping the control will be effective enough so they will be able to raise enough money to pay the rest of the subsidy money,” he explained.
Jacob Degraft Sackey
District Chief Executive for Assin South, Derrick Owusu Ambrose, is urging the Agric Ministry to re-look at policy and roll out measures to cushion affected farmers. “More than 50 percent of the affected farms have been destroyed. The farmers are worried and their fear is where they will get money to pay back. Government should take a second look and ensure that those infested farms, we see how best we can support them else they will be very hot,” he said.
Even educational institutions have not been spared. The Assin Nsuta Senior High School owns a 14-acre maize farm. Management of the school is hoping to feed the students from this field. But the Fall Army worms will not allow that.
“It has affected us a lot…. We used chemicals from the open market but we still have the infestation there….There are still more of them even though we have done the application of chemicals on several occasions… It will affect our food production rate and we will not have enough to feed the children,” Charles Wiredu who is head of the Agric Department at the school explained.
Invasion gets out of hand
In the Assin South District alone, the farms of 250 farmers growing about 400 acres of farmlands have been destroyed. District Chief Executive Derrick Owusu Ambrose who heads a local task force leading the fight against the pests says the invasion is getting out of control.
“Government has supplied chemicals. We have also formed district spraying gangs. But it seems the rate at which the infestation is going is getting out of our hands. I don’t know if there has been some sort of resistance to the chemicals we have been using. We have been spraying but these same farms, you see re-infestation,” he explained.
The story is no different in another severely affected community, Denkyira Wawaase in the Herman Lower Denkyira District. Deborah Obeng is a farmer here and a mother of three. For the last 20 years, she has educated her children and fed her family through this profession. But this has been a terrible season for her. She has lost the more than 1000 cedis she invested in the fields at the start of the planting season. “We didn’t get anything from our two-acre farm. I invested about 1000 cedis in fertilizer and other inputs. We have made a loss. We will cut down the fields and re-plant again and see what we will get,” she said.
Where are the chemicals?
When Agric Minister Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie addressed the media over the invasion, he announced a multi-million cedis intervention under which all affected farmers will benefit from a free mas spraying exercise to control the pests. “We have prepared a budget of 16 million cedis; half of which will go into the purchase of chemicals required to the control and ensure the annihilation of the pests and the rest into education,” he said.
But on the ground, the situation is different. Alex Obeng Adu is Agric Extension officer at Denkyira Wawaase. He says more than 200 of the 500 farmers whose farms have been destroyed here have not benefited from the supply of chemicals.
“All those farmers who planted early in the year (January and February), their farms were destroyed. Up to now, they have not recovered from the shock they got… More than 500 farmers were affected. But more than one-third of them haven’t received chemicals,” he said.
Some of the farmers also say the chemicals came in late, forcing them to rely on ineffective chemicals from the open market and that made them lose money. Simon Akweso who farms a 10 acres field at Suhum is one of such farmers. He told Joy News: “The Agric officers recommended chemicals for us to go and buy but it hasn’t helped us. I spent 600 cedis but nothing has changed.”
But Deputy Agric Minister Dr. Sagri Bambagni says there are enough chemicals for all farmers now. “If a farmer detects the presence of the worms today, and he reports, within 24 hours, the ministry will respond. We have chemicals in all the regions and districts ready for such combat,” he insisted.
The farmers are asking government to compensate them for the loss; a request ministry says it is still considering. They want government to be better prepared as they go into the next planting season to avert any such losses.
“Farmers who lost as a result of the pests are planning to plant again in the minor season in August. So, we are pleading to government to bring chemicals before they farm so they can spray against them,” one of the farmers told Joy News.
The story continues in part two of the documentary.
Below is the link to the first part of the documentary: