The sun was mid-way up when the car that carried me and a few local agricultural officers pulled up in front of a farmhouse. We got out and walked behind the house. There we found a heavily damaged field of corn. The farmer talked animatedly about a strange ‘hungry worm’. His corn was less than one-month old and he had already sprayed three times, without success.
In my nine years of field work, I’ve never seen a more depressing plot. Almost every corn plant showed damage and had worms. I took out my hand lens and examined a worm. It was just a few centimeters long, with a brownish hue. Suspicion verified: the fall armyworm had invaded Cambodia.
After further confirmation, the Cambodian government announced the presence of fall armyworm in the country on June 14. Taiwan followed soon after. Then South Korea and Japan.
Fall armyworm–a voracious pest of multiple crops but especially corn—is native to the Americas. It invaded Africa in 2016 and spread across the continent in a short time. In 2018, it was discovered in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
In Africa alone, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warns fall armyworm could cost smallholder farmers US $5 billion in lost maize and threaten the food security of 300 million people in 44 countries. With its ability to spread quickly over long distances, the damage in Asia could be much greater.
Fortunately, Cambodia and other countries are not in this fight alone. FAO and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have made laudable efforts to raise awareness of the threat.
But when it comes to dealing with the broader threat of invasive species, such a global response has been the exception rather than the rule. There has been a baffling absence of an international alliance to track and respond to the movement of invasive species more broadly.
Many invasive species affect agriculture in subtler ways than the fall armyworm, but the impacts can be just as harmful. Defined as any organism that is non-native and poses economic or environmental threat to an area, there are a number of invasive species traveling the globe. For example, the invasive cane toad with an appetite for insects that feed on rice pests is upsetting an effective natural system of rice pest control. In Indonesia, the mountain apple, brought to the country 1917, is displacing many native tree species and changing the very face of Indonesian rainforests, especially in areas with pockets of logging. Indeed, invasive species are responsible for a large portion of the earth’s biodiversity loss.
Meanwhile, detection is often too late and there is frequently insufficient coordination between the scientists investigating problems and the government and organizations that must manage them.
There are models available that could provide guidance for a better global system. For example, the FAO’s Emergency Prevention System (Empres) coordinates international action against the spread of animal diseases, like African Swine Fever. It also has been used to monitor the spread of agriculture pests like fall armyworm by coordinating information and raising awareness among at-risk countries before a potential invasion begins. But the FAO system only looks at agriculture threats, a subset of invasive species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains an online global database and registry of invasive species. Unfortunately, with fluctuating funding, its database is not updated frequently enough to be used for a rapid response. What we need is a combination of these networks, a scaled up version of Empres, writ large to include IUCN-sized ambitions and scope. To do this, we need a consensus among countries to work together, dedicated coordination staff and funding to support on the ground. This is expensive, but the benefits would outweigh the costs.
The economic costs of invasive species–some USD 33.5 billion per year in Southeast Asia alone—justify the creation of a more comprehensive global system. The potential costs of the fall armyworm, bad as they are, have been significantly reduced by the existence of a global network that tracks the movement of this pest. Indeed, this approach should be applied to monitor other invasive species.
Not every invasive species will lead to the devastation the fall armyworm can bring. But collectively they are steadily undermining our biodiversity and ability to feed ourselves. The damage these invaders cause is substantial and growing. Clearly, it’s time for a global effort to fortify our defenses against the onslaught of invasive species.