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Low Impact of Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda Smith) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) Across Smallholder Fields in Malawi and Zambia

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Fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda Smith), a serious pest of cereals from the Americas, has spread across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia since 2016, threatening the food security and incomes of millions of smallholder farmers. To measure the impact of S. frugiperda under different management approaches, we established on-farm trials across 12 landscapes (615−1,379 mm mean annual rainfall) in Malawi and Zambia during the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 seasons. Here we present the results from our conventional tillage, monocrop maize, no pesticide treatment, which served to monitor the background S. frugiperda impact in the absence of control measures. Median plot-level S. frugiperda incidence ranged between 0.00 and 0.52 across landscapes. Considering severe leaf damage (Davis score ≥5), the proportion of affected plants varied between 0.00 and 0.30 at the plot scale, but only 3% of plots had ≥10% severely damaged plants. While incidence and damage severity varied substantially among sites and seasons, our models indicate that they were lower in high tree cover landscapes, in the late season scouting, and in the 2020/2021 season. Yield could not be predicted from S. frugiperda incidence or leaf damage. Our results suggest S. frugiperda impacts may have been overestimated at many sites across sub-Saharan Africa. S. frugiperda incidence and damage declined through the cropping season, indicating that natural mortality factors were limiting populations, and none of our plots were heavily impacted. Long-term S. frugiperda management should be based on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) principles, including minimising the use of chemical pesticides to protect natural enemies.

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