Unravelling relationships in agricultural ecosystems

Image showing holes on maize leaves – on the left made by the invasive fall army worm and right by the native borer, chilo partellus

Over the past month I have travelled to Potchefstroom, Pretoria and Pongola for fieldwork. During this time I have been interviewing scientists and researchers involved in maize research, government employees involved in agriculture and small scale farmers who are growing GM, hybrid and traditional maize for household and some commercial use.

In my first week in Potchefstroom I was greeted by the reality of the army worm situation  currently facing farmers and the maize agriculture system in South Africa. This is a very significant and worrying event as this species now confirmed to be the Fall Army worm  (Spodoptera frugiperda) has never been seen in South Africa before its recent discovery in the Limpopo province in Early February 2017. This species native to eastern and central North America and South America has only recently begun being sighted on the African continent – The first sighting was in 2016 when it was reported in Nigeria and has since moved South. It has a rapid lifecycle and can quickly multiply if not dealt with. Over the past weeks in South Africa, the FAW has been found in Limpopo and Mpumalanga and parts of Northwest, Gauteng, Free State, the Northern Cape and KZN provinces. It is suspected that the pest may have come into the country with grain imported due to low regional yields following the severe drought over the past two years. Biowatch has drawn a connection between drought periods and the invasion of army worms in the past. However it is not known exactly how it came into the country.

The emergence FAW, a new species in the region offers an opportunity to explore the response of the agricultural research system in South Africa and how this threat is responded to. A multispecies perspective provides a lens through which to track the response to this pest and through this think about changing social – ecological relationships within systems of agri/culture.

The  Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has  initiated a pest action group.  The group brings together members  from  provincial departments, researchers, several producers’ associations and industries whom might be affected by the presence of the Fall worm.

Within such an emergency situation there is a great pressure for experts to come up with solutions quickly. There has been talk of instating an “emergency registration of agricultural chemicals “. The minister of Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana stated that “Luckily, with respect to the worms we are dealing with, we already identified a number of tools and chemicals that are already registered amongst various crops… We are confident that if growers and farmers use those products, the products would be used safely.” A Farmer’s weekly article has claimed that Bt maize may be less susceptible to the FAW. The approaches being put forward in media bring into question what solutions that are not reliant on chemicals are being investigated and if such R&D capacity exists in South Africa.

It is also a chance to think about knowledge in relation to agricultural systems in South Africa. In recent interviews with scientists I have been told how farmers and many technicians responsible for supporting farmers have little knowledge about ecological systems and insect ecology of agricultural systems. This has been attributed by some to changing focuses of research and the use of pesticides or Bt varieties as a”silver bullet” solutions to pest management.  The Minister of Agriculture explains that Diagnostic support would be increased to help with the identification of the pest. This comes after many farmers have been calling in to find out if the caterpillars they are witnessing are in fact FAW.

Interestingly the emergence of the FAW has set into motion the importation of pheromone traps which will be used determine the

image showing holes in maize leaves – on the left holes made by the Fall Army worm and holes on the right made by the native chilo partellusextent of the spread and the specific strain of FAW present in South Africa. This technique has not been used since the 1980s when light traps were used to track stem borer flight patterns when it was understood as a necessary part of pest management.  Situations such as the emergence of the fall worm bring into question the relationships between ecological systems, knowledge and agriculture. What kinds of precarious ecologies we may be contributing to building through the use of industrial farming techniques and technologies while at the same time becoming more and more disconnected from agro-ecological knowledge.

The small scale farmers I was visiting in Northern KwaZulu Natal have yet to experience the FAW and hopefully it will not reach this region. However the diversity of farmer growing methods in the region brings into question what farmers using traditional, organic or agroecological methods (who are not  already growing bt maize or using pesticides) might do. As it is clear that the dominant approach and approach recommended by authorities and experts in the field for dealing with the FAW will be the use of  pesticides (perhaps warranted in an emergency situation?).

Small-scale farmers that I have spoken to who do not use pesticides or Bt maize have described how they have stem-borer but that it usually does not significantly impact on yields or maize quality and this varies depending on when maize is planted. They use various techniques for keeping these borers under control such as ash, placed in the centre of germinating crops, to burning damaged stems. Smallholder farmers who are using traditional seed and more agroecological methods could potentially find themselves in a difficult situation and will be in need of assistance and research in grappling with this new species. There is a need for research that moves beyond a reliance on anymore chemicals which also bring into question the already pressing question of resistance.