Kenyan maize farmers lost Sh3 billion to Fall Armyworm attacks last year, the Ministry of Agriculture has said.
David Mwangi, the head of plant protection services at the ministry, Thursday termed the pest as a major threat to food security in the country.
"The Fall Armyworm damaged 250 hectares of maize last year when it was first reported in the country.
This reduced the maize yield by three million bags, which translates to approximately Sh3 billion," Mr Mwangi told a meeting called to deliberate on ways of fighting the worm in East Africa region.
He heads a team that includes senior government officials and researchers appointed to combat the pest.
The pest, which was first reported in West Africa in 2016, was cited in Western Kenya last year from where it has spread out to 43 counties.
It mostly attacks maize, but entomologists say that the pest is hosted in 79 other crops among them rice and wheat.
It also attacks millet, sorghum, cotton, sugar and other crops.
"Today the pest has spread to 43 counties and is a menace to all maize-growing regions," said Mr Mwangi during the meeting at a Nairobi hotel.
38 African countries
The pest rapidly spread to 38 out of the 52 African countries destroying thousands of hectares under crop in its wake.
Though the governments in the affected regions sensitized farmers about the pest and distributed pesticides in response, efforts to fight the pest have not been quite successful because it caught farmers flat-footed and it is resistant to conventional pesticides.
Desperate farmers in the country turned to the use of ineffective home-made concoctions.
Experts Thursday recommended a combination of mitigation interventions that include crop rotation, genetic modification of seeds, and the use of suitable pesticides to effectively fight the pest.
They urged governments in the affected regions to declare the Fall Armyworm outbreak an emergency.
"The outbreak of Fall Armyworm is an emergency and should be regarded as such at the highest political levels. This will merit emergency response interventions and the fast tracking of pesticide registration," said Dr Francis Nang’ayo, a senior manager at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation.
The US Agency for International Development (USAid) in April warned that Kenya and other major maize-producing countries in Africa face “staggering” food and financial losses from the invasion of the voracious pest.
Regina Eddy, co-ordinator of a USAid task force focused on the Fall Armyworm threat, said sub-Saharan Africa’s climate conditions are “ideal” for the rapid spread of the worm.
Although it only recently arrived from the Americas, the fall armyworm “will likely be in fields forever” in Africa, she added, citing a Brazilian farmer's comment that “it's like a marriage without a divorce.”
A study commissioned last year by the British government's Department for International Development estimated that total potential losses could range from $2.5 billion to $6.3 billion in 12 African countries.
Tanzania and Uganda were included in that grouping, while Kenya was not.
The “army” reference stems from the insect's relentless march during which it destroys targets and then advances to a new field of crop.