£1m research grant to combat crop pests in Africa

Keele University’s Professor Toby Bruce has been awarded a major grant of £1.1million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to investigate solutions to the rising problem of the Fall Armyworm, in collaboration with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya.

The Fall Armyworm has recently invaded and rapidly spread across large areas of Africa, where it has become a major threat to agriculture, sustainable food production, food security and livelihoods, affecting at least 400,000 ha and causing estimated crop losses worth $3 billion a year.

Crop damage

The three-year research project, which commences this autumn, will employ a four-pronged attack on the Fall Armyworm, involving resistant crops, companion cropping to repel Fall Armyworm and attract them to trap crops, and enhancing biological control with natural enemies of the pest. Working in close partnership with local farmers in Kenya, the icipe and Keele research team will develop a novel pest management system which fights ‘nature with nature’, without using pesticides.

Smallholder farming communities in sub-Saharan Africa are particularly vulnerable to crop losses to pests because they generally cannot afford pesticides, and as subsistence farmers they depend directly on the crops for their food security.

Professor Bruce, Professor of Insect Chemical Ecology at Keele University explains:

“Our project will use a four-pronged attack on the Fall Armyworm, utilising the natural defence mechanisms of the crop and companion plants. Firstly, we will assess the natural resistance levels of the crops available to the farmers (maize millet and sorghum) to determine which varieties would be most robust against the Fall Armyworm. We will then employ a companion cropping system known as ‘Push-Pull’, where we will attempt to drive pests away from the main crop using a repellent intercrop (push), whilst attracting them to alternative locations with trap plants (pull). This is a technique that we know has been used successfully against Stemborer pests. Finally, we will attempt to utilise the indirect defence mechanisms of plants to bring in local predators of the Fall Armyworm. These 'early herbivore alert’ varieties are able to detect insect eggs that have been laid on them, and emit odours to attract the natural enemies of the pests to the area where the crop is being cultivated.”

This novel design of pest management based on the four strategies of resist, expel, trap and kill should provide a novel cropping system which can withstand attack by Fall Armyworm and other major pests.

Design of such a system requires a detailed understanding of the predators and parasites that are the key natural enemies of the invasive Fall Armyworm in Kenya. Therefore, a major part of this project will be to understand the current pest and predator relationship where the crops are being grown.

Professor Bruce continues:

“Once we understand the current pest-predator relationship, we will be able to test how such companion cropping and early alert crops could reduce crop losses to the Fall Armyworm, using crops that are readily available to the farmers in Kenya. Working with the local farmers, we will codesign solutions with them so that that we can be assured from the onset that the novel cropping system that is created is not just appropriate for their requirements, but can be feasibly implemented with the resources available to them.”


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