AT THE start of the kharif season, Maharashtra’s agriculture commissionerate has raised a red flag about a possible infestation of the Fall Armyworm (FAW) in the state. In an advisory uploaded on its website, the department has asked maize growers to be careful about sowing the crop, given the large-scale destruction the pest caused in the previous season.
Last year, India was added to the growing list of nations that reported FAW (scientifically known as Spodoptera frugiperda). A native of North America, this pest, since 2016, has been moving eastward causing destruction in crops in various African countries. After making a landfall in India last summer, the pest since then has moved on to Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka China and Taiwan. Predominantly feeding on the maize crop, FAW can also feed on 80 different crops, ranging from soya bean to sugarcane, which makes controlling its infestation a challenge.
In India, the pest has been reported from all states in the southern peninsula and also from West Bengal, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram, to name a few. India’s decision to import five lakh tonnes of maize is mainly due to the destruction of the crop by FAW and drought. Ironically, maize prices are at an all-time high with the country’s average traded price of the grain being around Rs 1,900 per quintal. Last year, it was around Rs 1,100 per quintal. Maharashtra had reported 600 hectares of infestation of FAW, mostly on jowar (sorghum) and maize.
This year, even as the spectre of the increased infestation of FAW looms large over the state, the maize area is all set to increase given the better prices the cereal is trading at. Also, the delayed monsoon will see many farmers going for maize, which is a short duration (60 to 100 days) and can withstand moisture stress.
The agriculture department’s message underlines the threat the maize growers face from the new pest. The department has already started a farmers’ outreach programme, in which it is raising awareness among growers on steps required from day one.
The insect normally lays eggs on the upper side of the leaves with the larvae hatching in two to three days. The larval stage, with the caterpillar going through six parts or ‘instars’ over about 30 days, is the most dangerous. During the last three, the growing larvae feed on leaves, flowers, stalks or whorls of maize and other crop plants.
Once the larval stage is complete, the growing moth pupates in the soil – for eight to nine days in summer and 20 to 30 days in cool weather. The nocturnal egg-laying adults live for about 10 days, during which they migrate long distances. At present, the best method to control the spread of the pest is to take up mechanical destruction of egg manes and the newly-hatched larva as well as seed treatment before sowing.
Dr Sharanbasappa Deshmukh, entomologist from University of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences in Karnataka, was the first to report the pest in India. “We have been getting reports from various maize growers in the state. A delayed monsoon will have no effect on this pest,” he said.