13 April 2016

Research into a devastating African pest has been highlighted by Government as an example of science’s pivotal role in solving problems and improving productivity

Research into armyworms by Professor Kenneth Wilson, from Lancaster University, has been highlighted by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills as an example of what UK-funded research has achieved.

Maintaining the UK’s position at the forefront of science research’ features a video diary by Ken about a trip to Zambia, where he advised the country’s Vice-President on how to control the agricultural pest.

"From the invention of the lightbulb to the creation of the World Wide Web, UK scientists have been instrumental in many of the world's most significant discoveries,” said Jo Johnson, Universities and Science Minister.

Ken’s visit in December 2012, came in the middle of a serious outbreak of armyworms, the caterpillar stage of a moth that migrates throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Armyworms can devastate harvests and eat entire crops in a matter of weeks and affects all the main cereal crops, including maize (sweetcorn), rice, millet, sorghum and wheat, as well as pasture grasses.

The outbreak began in Zambia and, within a month, the insects had spread to five other countries and was threatening both farmer’s livelihoods and people’s access to food.

Ken travelled to Zambia to talk to farmers and collect samples of the pests, and was invited to brief the country’s Vice President, Dr Guy Scott, about his research. He brought samples back to the Lancaster Environment Centre to study in the laboratory.

Ken is funded by Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to work with collaborators in the UK and Tanzania to develop a natural virus that can be produced locally to infect and kill armyworms, reducing the need for expensive, imported chemical pesticides.

He has also helped establish the Armyworm Network, providing information about the pests and forecasts on armyworm movements. The Network’s website is used by large- and small-scale farmers in Africa, as well as governments, donor agencies, non-governmental organisations and journalists.