Tim Roske/AP

Caterpillars in Liberia are Destroying Crops, Causing a National Emergency

January 23, 2009 04:15 PM
by Cara McDonough
Caterpillars are the culprit of Liberia’s recent food and health crisis. The insects, believed to be "African armyworms," are native to the area, and could take some time to stop.

Caterpillars Everywhere

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suspects that the caterpillars are African armyworms. The caterpillars, which are known for destroying crops, are widespread throughout Africa, Asia and Western Australia.

In addition to making life miserable for farmers, the pests aren’t too nice to look at. According to Bloomberg, “millions of black, hairy caterpillars” are eating through vegetation and crops in Liberia and could spread to neighboring countries, including the Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest producer of cocoa.

“They seem to be eating everything: cocoa, cash crops, leaves and food,” Christopher Matthews, a spokesman for the FAO in Rome, said to Bloomberg. The FAO has declared the situation a “national emergency,” but said that a solution to the problem may take some time; the FAO cannot prescribe a pesticide until it has determined exactly what subspecies of armyworm is involved.

This isn’t the first time Liberia has been hit, but this invasion is believed to be the worst in Liberia in 30 years, reports Voice of America. FAO Representative Winfred Hammond called the situation “quite alarming,” and said that the infestation of caterpillars was "spreading very fast and was also causing damage not only to crops but contaminating waterways and therefore making it difficult for many villagers and the inhabitants to get access to good drinking water.”

A similar crop emergency occurred in East Asia in May when a tiny insect called the brown plant hooper caused extensive damage to rice crops there, compounding what was already a dire global food crisis. Experts said the problem could have been prevented if more funding for agricultural research had been provided over the years. The issue of funding for agricultural research has not yet been brought up in relation to the African armyworm problem in Liberia.

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Related Topic: Crop scourges in history and invasive species introduction

Farmers throughout the ages have been victims of crop scourges that occur due to pests like the African armyworms, plant diseases or other problems. Perhaps the most famous blight was the Irish potato famine that occurred in the 1840s as a result of a fungus that affected potato plants, causing huge implications for the Irish people, who were largely dependant on the potato for food.

Other crop blights have occurred when an animal species threatens a crop by eating it, like the armyworms in Liberia. Farmers and local officials affected by invasions have tried in certain circumstances to introduce another species to kill off the pests, but the practice of invasive species introduction often goes awry.

On the Australian island of Macquarie, for instance, officials enacted a plan to remove all feral cats from the island in order to help the native bird population. But the cats were apparently keeping the island’s rabbit population in check, and without them, the rabbit population has skyrocketed. The rabbits have subsequently ravaged the vegetation that the birds need to live, thus making the entire exercise pointless.

Reference: African armyworms


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