UK-India project to trial new agri-tech solution for global crop pest

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Smallholders in India will be able to trial a new monitoring tool to assist in the fight against prolific crop pest fall armyworm, thanks to a recently launched international agri-tech project.

Although native to the Americas, fall armyworm, Spodoptera frugiperda, is a highly invasive pest with the potential to cause significant damage to crops worldwide.

First reported in the cornfields of sub-Saharan Africa in 2016, it later spread to India in 2018 and has now been identified across 20 states. In addition to maize, fall armyworm attacks other important crops such as rice, sugarcane, beet, potato, cotton and grassland.

The project, funded by UK Government through the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO)’s, Science and Innovation Network in India, will bring together UK and Indian expertise across a range of areas to deliver an affordable network-based monitoring solution.

Work will be led by a consortium featuring agri-tech specialists Crop Health & Protection (CHAP)KnowmaticsYstumtec and CABI.

International Business Development Manager for UK Agri-Tech Centre CHAP, Dr Jenna Ross, said: “We’re delighted to be part of this multidisciplinary consortium, to develop an affordable, inclusive and scalable technology for the monitoring of fall armyworm.

“To date, there has been no coordinated sentinel network or strategy for monitoring current and future invasive alien species (IAS) in India, due to the lack of reliable and consistent tools, and capacity to establish such a network.

“By creating a sentinel network that alerts smallholders, this could bring significant economic benefits to the region through reduced crop damage.”

Farming practices such as crop monoculture and overuse of pesticides mean that fall armyworm is an increasingly destructive pest. In sub-Saharan Africa, damage to the continent’s main crop, maize, is estimated at US$2 billion per year.

It is the larval stage of the insect that causes the damage, feeding in large numbers on the leaves and stems of more than 350 plant species.

The consortium hopes to reduce this damage. Work will include stakeholder and human-centric research studies to ensure an appropriate route to market. A messaging method will also be developed, to overcome barriers such as cultural, behavioural, language and gender obstacles.

Exciting challenge

CEO and founder of food chain data specialists, Knowmatics, Derek Scuffell, said: “We’re excited to take on this challenge through the innovative application of digital and network technologies. By leveraging the power of affordable networked sentinels, farmers will have access to pest risk intelligence over a large area around their farm.   “This prototype project will provide the background data needed to establish affordable pest risk and surveillance services that can be used by farmers, distributors, and agribusinesses to implement appropriate pest control that supports more sustainable farming, reduces costs on the farm, and lifts socio-economic outcomes.”

Ystumtec designs and builds electronic and electro-mechanical devices. CEO Mark Neal, said: “We view this project as a flagship endeavour that can demonstrate the value of our IoT and sensor technologies and the data that they provide.

“We’re excited about the potential impact of our technology on the environment, livelihoods of farmers and economics of farming at a larger scale in India and further afield.

“In our experience, engagement with farmers and end-users is vital to successful deployment and uptake of this kind of technology and this project has all the key ingredients for success.”

The project also aims to deliver additional benefits beyond its core objectives, including increased knowledge transfer between UK-India partners, and expansion of the system to combat a wide range of IAS in the future.

CABI has been at the centre of tackling fall armyworm in Africa and Asia, and has developed a guide – ‘Fall armyworm in Asia: A Guide for Integrated Pest Management’. Dr Vinod Pandit, Programme Leader at CABI, said: “Fall armyworm has been spreading fast inter- and intra-countries, as was predicted by experts when it first landed in Africa.

“So, it is now high time that evidence-based sustainable approaches for monitoring and management of the pest are created, that are adaptable to suit regional context.”

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