BY PATRICIA BIANCA S. TACULAO 

Pests are one of the various factors that farmers have to keep an eye out for to keep their crops safe and healthy. And one pest that many ASEAN countries are looking out for is the fall armyworm.

Fall armyworms (Spodoptera frugiperda) is defined by Alison Watson, head of the secretariat of the ASEAN FAW action plan at Grow Asia, as “a highly invasive species that is native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas.”

“This is a serious plant pest that can feed on a range of host plants, although it prefers maize and sweetcorn. It’s extremely fast-moving, with studies in Southeast Asia tracking FAW moths flying distances of more than 1,000 km. The tropical climate of many areas of the Philippines provides perfect conditions for the FAW to live year-round,” Watson said. 

Its arrival in Southeast Asia was first officially reported in 2019 and it has rapidly spread across the region, even in the Philippines. 

According to Minda Flor M. Aquino, chief of the Regional Crop Pest Management Center in Region II, fall armyworms caused 30 percent damage in the latest planting season of conventional corn in the Cagayan Valley. 

Due to the reported damage of FAW in the Philippines, this pest is one that local farmers should keep an eye on to avoid significant crop losses in the future. 

Mitigating the attack of FAW

“Nothing replaces the keen eye of a farmer. And one of the best ways to manage fall armyworms and reduce crop loss is early detection through regular physical scouting of the field. Farmers should scout early and often, up to three times a week at the start of the new season,” Watson said.

She added that farmers should also look for the damage on the leaf called “small fresh window panes” because the larvae are only millimeters in length and are difficult to see. Managing them at a young age before they move to the whorl, or ear of the corn where they are difficult to control is necessary to avoid crop losses. 

While the focus is on helping farmers manage fall armyworms, Watson also said that people need to be aware that farmers are facing multiple threats to their livelihoods and require practical, cost-effective, and integrated solutions which build their resilience to increasing demands and impacts. 

This can be achieved by increasing farmers’ access to effective, safe, and sustainable tools and technologies combined with strong farmer-centric education and learning activities related to integrated pest management.

As per Watson, this will not only better equip Filipino farmers to manage FAW but also other plant pests and diseases, and this will help build more resilient agricultural practices for the future.  

But aside from the farmers closely maintaining their crops, the ASEAN also has a digital approach to managing FAW through the ASEAN Action Plan on Fall Armyworm. 

“Signed off by ASEAN Ministers of Agriculture and Forestry on 21 October 2020, the ASEAN Action Plan on Fall Armyworm sets out a unique regionally agreed multi-stakeholder model for supporting Southeast Asian countries to manage the serious threat of fall armyworm (FAW). A regional approach is necessary as no country alone can effectively manage this serious, fast-moving, transboundary pest,” Watson said. 

Carrying out the Action Plan

The Action Plan consists of comprehensive programs to help support smallholder farmers, the government, and the private sector in the Philippines by disseminating information, knowledge, and best practices on how to manage FAW across the region by strengthening regional coordination and networks. 

“It is not a replacement for the strong national and local approaches already initiated by the Philippines Government but is a complementary initiative,” said the head of the secretariat of the ASEAN FAW action plan at Grow Asia. 

Rather, the Action Plan focuses on building farmers’ awareness, capacity, and capability to better manage FAW through improved biocontrol, resistance management, surveillance and monitoring, drones and digital IPM, and effective farmer communications. 

The Action Plan will partner with stakeholders to run pilots, activities, and demonstrations throughout Southeast Asian countries to properly disseminate the knowledge about FAW learned from the actions across the region. 

Watson shared that the Action Plan has started several training programs with more than 4,000 people participating in a recent biocontrol series where many practitioners from the Philippines are involved. 

“Stakeholders in the Philippines can now access guidance on a range of biocontrol and integrated pest management skills from over thirty international experts,” she said. 

Moving forward, the Action Plan will aim to further research capability through the establishment of a Virtual ASEAN Research Hub on Bioprotection which will bring together Filipino researchers with other regional and international experts working on plant pest and disease management. 

“We will soon be investigating actions to better understand how we can unlock the huge potential of drones and digital integrated pest management technologies to support smallholder farmers combat FAW,” Watson said. 

By empowering Filipino farmers, the ASEAN Action Plan will equip them with both the knowledge and technology that they need to combat FAW and future pests that threaten Philippine agriculture. 

For more information, visit www.aseanfawaction.org.