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Declaring War on the Armyworm

UF joins forces with African countries to combat a crop-destroying insect threatening 200 million people with famine

The Horn of Africa — a cluster of countries on the continent’s northeast corner — is flush with wildlife: baboons, warthogs, painted hunting dogs, Somali wild asses and pygmy gerbils among them.

A plump moth caterpillar called the African armyworm flourishes there, too. And people are going hungry because of it.

Armyworm moths, carried on monsoon winds, have spread to Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and neighboring nations near the Horn. With each moth, hundreds of crop-devouring caterpillars — that quickly became millions — soon followed. Those armyworms are feasting on corn, wheat, rice, cotton, potato, soybeans, tobacco and other crops, often destroying entire fields overnight.

The United Nations calls the armyworm infestation “a huge threat to food security.” For communities already struggling with food shortages because of severe droughts and overpopulation, the armyworm is bringing 200 million Africans close to famine, UF’s Jack Payne said.

To control the armyworm, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, based in Africa, is looking to the University of Florida for assistance.

“We have a record of international engagement, [and] we have entomologists with expertise in what makes the armyworm tick — and what we can do to make it untick,” said Payne, UF’s senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources.

Pedro Sanchez, one of the scientists on the armyworm war’s frontline, is a “rock star” in the international agricultural community, Payne said. The researcher of tropical soils in UF’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems was a 2002 World Food Prize laureate, for 10 years served as director general of the World Agroforestry Center in Kenya, and co-chaired the United Nations’ Millennium Project Hunger Task Force.

Sanchez’s reputation, along with the university’s strengths in academics and research, drew the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to UF as a partner to solve Africa’s armyworm troubles, said Nteranya Sanginga, the Institute’s director general.

“IITA and UF share a common approach to science. We see discovery as a source of solutions, a catalyst for action and the foundation for international cooperation,” he said. “Combining our expertise will accelerate inquiry and is expected to hasten the identification of solutions to address the armyworm problem.”

UF and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture have agreed to an initial five-year partnership; however, the “broad framework for cooperation” is expected to later include other joint scientific projects, Payne said, adding that UF’s work in Africa is another example of the university’s growing role as a global leader.

With “millions of lives at stake … [from] perhaps the gravest short-term threat of famine on the planet,” the university’s partnership to control the armyworm is critical, Payne said. “UF/IFAS needs African expertise if it hopes to make a great impact on African challenges.”

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