Scientists find crop-destroying caterpillar spreading rapidly in Africa

Dried caterpillars are seen for sale at Gambela Market in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, in this July 14, 2015 file photo. (Reuters)
Updated 06 February 2017
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Scientists find crop-destroying caterpillar spreading rapidly in Africa

LONDON: Scientists tracking a crop-destroying caterpillar known as armyworm say it is now spreading rapidly across mainland Africa and could reach tropical Asia and the Mediterranean in the next few years, threatening agricultural trade.
In research released on Monday, scientists at the Britain-based Center for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) said the pest, which had not previously been established outside the US, is now expected to spread “to the limits of suitable African habitat” within a few years.
The caterpillar destroys young maize plants, attacking their growing points and burrowing into the cobs.
“It likely traveled to Africa as adults or egg masses on direct commercial flights and has since been spread within Africa by its own strong flight ability and carried as a contaminant on crop produce,” said CABI’s chief scientist Matthew Cock.
Armyworm, known as “fall armyworm” in the US due to its tendency to migrate there in autumn, or fall, is native to North and South America and can devastate maize, a staple crop crucial to food security in large parts of Africa.
Suspected outbreaks have already erupted in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
said last week it had spread to Namibia and Mozambique.
The CABI research found evidence of two species of fall armyworm in Ghana for the first time and scientists are now working to understand how it got there, how it spreads, and how farmers can control it in an environmentally friendly way.
“This is the first time it has been shown that both species or strains are established on mainland Africa,” Cook said. “Following earlier reports from Nigeria, Togo and Benin, this shows they are clearly spreading very rapidly.”
While armyworm mainly affects maize, it has also been recorded eating more than 100 different plant species, causing major damage to crops such as rice and sugarcane as well as cabbage, beet and soybeans.
Cook warned that outbreaks can cause devastating losses and mounting debts for farmers and said urgent action is now needed to help farmers figure out the best strategies to control the pest.
South Africa’s Agriculture Ministry said last week it was registering pesticides for use against armyworm.


Amid wall debate, pope visits Panama with migration in mind

Updated 23 January 2019
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Amid wall debate, pope visits Panama with migration in mind

  • The pope is expected to urge young people to create their own opportunities
  • Francis’ trip, the first in a year packed with foreign travel, comes at a critical moment in the papacy

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis is looking to leave the sex abuse scandal buffeting his papacy behind as he heads to Central America amid a standoff over President Donald Trump’s promised wall at the US-Mexico border and a new caravan of migrants heading north.
History’s first Latin American pope, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, has made the plight of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy. He is also expected to offer words of encouragement to young people gathered in Panama for World Youth Day, the church’s once-every-three-year pep rally that aims to invigorate the next generation of Catholics in their faith.
Panama Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa said Francis’ message is likely to resonate with young Central Americans who see their only future free of violence and poverty in migrating to the US — “young people who often fall into the hands of drug traffickers and so many other realities that our young people face.”
The pope is expected to urge young people to create their own opportunities, while calling on governments do their share as well.
The visit is taking place as the US government remains partly shut down in a standoff between the Trump administration and Democrats over funding for Trump’s promised border wall.
Francis famously has called for “bridges, not walls.” After celebrating Mass in 2016 on the Mexican side of the US border, he denounced anyone who wants to build a wall to keep out migrants as “not Christian.”
Crowds are expected to be smaller than usual for this World Youth Day — only about 150,000 people had registered as of last week — but thousands more will certainly throng Francis’ main events, which include a vigil and a final Mass on Sunday. The Vatican conceded that the January date doesn’t suit school vacations in Europe or North America, both of which typically send huge numbers of pilgrims to World Youth Day gatherings.
Francis’ trip, the first in a year packed with foreign travel, comes at a critical moment in the papacy as the Catholic hierarchy globally is facing a crisis in credibility for covering up decades of cases of priests molesting young people.
The pope is expected to soon rule on the fate of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the high-powered US archbishop accused of molesting minors and adults. And he is hosting church leaders at the Vatican next month on trying to chart a way forward for the global church.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said there were no plans for Francis to meet with abuse survivors in Panama. Central America hasn’t yet seen the explosion of sex abuse cases that have shattered trust in the Catholic hierarchy in Chile, the US and other parts of the world.
This is the first papal visit to Panama since St. John Paul II was there during a 1983 regional tour that famously included an unscheduled stop at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Romero had been gunned down by right-wing death squads three years earlier, at the start of El Salvador’s civil war, for having spoken out on behalf of the poor.
Salvadoran bishops had hoped Francis would follow suit and make a stop in El Salvador this time to pay his respects at Romero’s tomb since Francis canonized him in October. But the Vatican said a Salvador leg was never really in the cards.
Nevertheless, Gisotti said Romero would likely loom large at the Panama gathering, given he is such a point of reference for young Central American Catholics who grew up learning about his defense of the poor.
The Panama visit is also the first by a pope since the Vatican embassy played a crucial role during the 1989 US invasion of Panama, when dictator Manuel Noriega took refuge there and requested asylum on Christmas Eve after four days on the run trying to escape US troops.
Noriega eventually surrendered, bringing to an end one of the more unusual US military operations: It involved US troops blasting heavy metal and rock music — including Van Halen’s “Panama” — at the embassy to try to force Noriega out.
Noriega, a onetime US ally, eventually served a 17-year drug sentence in the United States. He died in 2017 after his final years were spent in a Panamanian prison for the murder of political opponents during his 1983-89 regime.