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Fall armyworm in Europe: how can we use biocontrol?

Published 13/02/2023

Theme: Agriculture and bioprotection

Maize leaf with larvae of the fall armyworm
Fall armyworm larvae on maize leaf © CABI

The fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) is a notorious pest. It can, and has, caused severe damage to crops across Africa. Worryingly, it is expected to further spread into Europe. 

Various control options exist where the pest is present. The CABI BioProtection Portal can help you discover bioprotectants available for the fall armyworm.  

However, biocontrol options for this pest are needed in Europe. Scientists in this paper titled “Potential Management Options for the Invasive Moth Spodoptera frugiperda in Europe”  are calling for these options to be investigated before it establishes.  

What is the fall armyworm?

The fall armyworm is a Lepidopteran pest originating from the Americas. Its larvae can feed on many crops like maize, rice and sugarcane. Maize is the preferred host of this pest.   

The pest was first detected in Africa in 2016. It rapidly spread across the continent, invading almost every country. It was later found in South and Southeast Asia and, lately, Australia, where it also settled quickly.  

If the fall armyworm is not managed, it will likely cause considerable damage to maize crops leading to devastating yield losses.  

The predicted spread of the fall armyworm 

The fall armyworm is a migratory pest and is expected to naturally spread to mainland Europe. It could also be introduced through international trade.  

Climatic models predict that the fall armyworm will establish itself in the southern parts of Europe. Those include Spain, Italy, and Greece. The models also suggest that the fall armyworm could migrate seasonally to central Europe.  

This could be a major threat to European agriculture if the fall armyworm is not managed in time. In the continent, maize is the second most-grown cereal. There should be a focus on finding suitable biocontrol options for many reasons. 

A bottle of insecticide in a farmer's hand to tackle fall armyworm
A bottle of an insecticide Neemazal azadirachtin 0.3% EC insecticide, which can be used for tackling fall armyworm © CABI

Why biocontrol and what options could be used in Europe? 

CABI scientists recently assessed the potential management options against the fall armyworm in Europe. 

Cultural practices alone have been shown to be inefficient in controlling the pest. Some are also not suitable for European agriculture using machinery. Chemical pesticides should be avoided as well as they are harmful to human health and the environment. Also, the fall armyworm has already become resistant to many pesticides.  

Biocontrol would be a sustainable alternative control option. But lead author Dr Dirk Babendreier urges biocontrol companies to start registering products against the fall armyworm now. They could even adopt bioprotectants that already exist.  

European countries have many biocontrol agents to control lepidopteran maize pests. These products’ labels could be extended for the fall armyworm. Some bioprotectants are also registered to control the fall armyworm in other parts of the world. These products could be adapted for Europe as well.  

For example, baculoviruses and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) bacterial pesticides are effective bioprotectants.  

Registering new products and active ingredients for Europe is needed as soon as possible. It will help to mitigate the fall armyworm’s damages and avoid relying exclusively on chemical pesticides. This will reduce risks associated with chemicals and minimize potential loss of yields to farmers  

But companies and farmers should act fast and prepare to prevent the pest, rather than deal with the devastating outcomes. 

Go further:  

  • Check the guidelines developed by the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) to prevent and slow the spread of the fall armyworm.  
  • Check this FAO webpage to learn how to identify the fall armyworm.

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