After Swine Fever, China’s Farmers Battle Corn-Devouring Pest

Voracious fall armyworms are destroying crops across the southern regions. As summer arrives, they’re threatening the country’s corn-growing heartland.


Matthew Walsh, Sixth Tone (China)

Jun 05, 2019


GUANGXI, South China — It’s been a dismal few months for Jiang Sigui. First, he lost his entire pig herd to African swine fever. Then, the 57-year-old farmer was dismayed to find his cornfields crawling with mysterious green caterpillars. Within weeks, his crop was ruined.


Jiang had planted the corn in February, intending to feed some to his livestock and sell the rest. His two yearly crops usually earn him a total of about 2,400 yuan ($347), close to half of his annual income. But this time, the caterpillars bored through his young corn husks and devoured the cobs. “There’s none left,” he laments. “What am I supposed to sell?”


Similar scenes have played out across southern China this spring, as corn and other crops have come under attack from the fall armyworm, an invasive species. The fast-spreading and voracious pest is already threatening food security in the world’s second-largest corn-producing nation, hitting farmers’ livelihoods, and further damaging an agriculture industry reeling from an ongoing African swine fever outbreak that could reportedly result in the deaths of up to millions of pigs.


The fall armyworm is the larval stage of a moth capable of flying up to 100 kilometers a night. Native to the Americas, the insect somehow made its way to Africa in 2016, where it has since spread to more than 40 countries. Following its appearance in India, Myanmar, and Thailand last year, China’s first sightings of the pest took place in January in southwestern Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar.


Earlier Wednesday, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) published a notice saying that the fall armyworm has spread to 18 provinces and regions, but it did not quantify the total affected area. However, in updates dated between May 10 and May 24, affected farmland increased from 1.08 million to 1.91 million mu (72,000 to 127,333 hectares). (The mu is a Chinese unit of measurement).


And it’s unlikely the pest is yet finished. The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service says there is a “high probability” that the fall armyworm will spread to key corn-producing regions in northern and northeastern China by June, and it may also threaten other crops, including rice, wheat, sugar cane, cotton, and soybeans. According to MARA, the insect “seriously threatens China’s agricultural and food-production security.”


Compounding the fall armyworm’s threat is the fact that it has no natural predators in China. In an email to Sixth Tone, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that once the insect has arrived, “it can’t be eradicated.” However, integrated pest-management practices can help to mitigate the spread of fall armyworms, the organization added...


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