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Bigger pest threat looms large over Assam

 GUWAHATI, Sept 22 - While invasion of cropland by the armyworm (called shurpok locally) is not unusual in Assam, a far bigger threat in the form of a possible fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) epidemic looms large over the State.

 Armyworm infestation of crop in Assam in varied degrees is almost a regular occurrence but the State’s cropland had borne the brunt of a massive armyworm invasion three years back, resulting in unprecedented crop damage.

Worryingly, crop infestation by the exotic fall armyworm – which is native to tropical and subtropical North America – has already been reported in three northeastern states of Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland.

The pest is particularly dangerous because of its rapidly multiplying nature and quick movement. The female fall armyworm can travel up to around 100 km in a night. It can feed on 80 different crops and plants – though maize is its favourite – and is attacking new crops.

The Assam agriculture department is apparently unaware of the developments in the neighbouring states. There have also been unconfirmed reports of crop infestation by the fall armyworm at places in Assam.

“We do not have any report of fall armyworm presence in the State’s cropland. The common armyworm and other pests like hispa infest our crop regularly but are generally kept under check. It was only in 2016 that there was an unprecedented armyworm invasion in the State that caused large-scale crop damage,” sources in the department told The Assam Tribune.

Sources claimed that the department had sufficient stock of pesticides (Phlorpyriphos 20 EC and Quinolphos 25 EC) and those were being supplied to farmers for countering the armyworm. Regular farmer awareness drives and pest control trainings are also conducted, sources added.

Sources, however, were unclear about the steps to be taken in the event of an invasion by the fall armyworm even as the affected neighbouring states were working on a war footing to combat the threat.

Worryingly, most of the pesticides available in the market are not effective against the pest because they kill only the larvae and leave the eggs, which later hatch and continue damaging crops. This makes controlling the pest a tough job.

The Manipur government had constituted three action teams to combat the spread of the devastating pest following its outbreak in May. The Nagaland government had sounded a high alert on May 10 on the fall armyworm infestation after outbreaks in Mizoram and Manipur and parts of Kohima. It also constituted several rapid response forces. Mizoram University’s research wing is experimenting on organic methods to control fall armyworms that have attacked maize farms in over 90 villages in Mizoram within a short period.

Scientists from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Manipur Centre had detected the fall armyworm for the first time in the Northeast. Initially, the insect was found in the maize farms in Imphal West and Chandel districts but later it was found to have spread to many other areas.

Significantly, a number of Asian countries have reported fall armyworm invasion this year, with the pest spreading to new countries in quick time. In Africa also, it caused widespread devastation since 2016. Scientists have come to recognize fall armyworm as the biggest pestilence threat, in terms of extent of damage caused to both the crop varieties and the area.

In the last massive armyworm invasion in Assam that took epidemic proportions, ten districts suffered unprecedented crop damage.

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