sre cheng village, Kompong Speu province – Two months after army worms damaged rice crops in southern Cambodia, farmers here are suffering from an outbreak of the “brown planthopper.”
The brown winged insects, which grow to less than half a centimeter long, have damaged more than 1,400 hectares of rice fields and seed beds in the southern half of the country. The government and the Irish NGO Concern began spraying pesticide here Monday in an effort to stem the spread of the planthopper.
The outbreak, which appears to be the worst since 1995, prompted the Ministry of Agriculture to predict above-average crop damage this year.
In June, an outbreak of the army worm damaged more than 2,000 hectares of rice fields. And agronomists believe that delayed flooding in October will result in an infestation of hungry rats searching for dry land, threatening more rice plants.
Ith Nody, director of the ministry’s agronomy department, expressed concern for the food supplies of the affected farmers. He has asked the government for immediate support to control the “widespread” outbreak.
While agronomists said farmers still have time to replant destroyed seed beds before heavy rains hit, they worried over farmers who cannot afford to buy the rice seed to replant.
Gary Jahn, a crop protection specialist with the Cambodia-Australia International Rice Research Institute project, said Monday that while the damage may not affect the final wet-season harvest, it could devastate small-scale producers.
“On a national scale, it’s not that important a pest,” Jahn said. “For individual farmers, it’s really serious. If you happen to be the farmer who’s hit, it can wipe out your field….It hits the poorest and smallest farmer the hardest.”
Kong Chheng, a farmer here whose seedbed was completely destroyed, said he has never seen the planthopper—or a pest as destructive—before. “This planthopper is the most dangerous pest I’ve ever seen because after the damage, the rice can’t survive,” he said.
Up to 80 percent of 1,225 damaged hectares in Takeo province—the hardest-hit province—could be completely destroyed if quick action is not taken, Hean Vanhan, deputy director for plant protection in the department of agronomy, warned Monday.
The planthopper arrived in Cambodia on July 4, likely blown in by wind from Vietnam, Jahn said. “On the fourth of July, there were brown plant hoppers all around the lights in Phnom Penh so we knew they would be all over the country,” he explained.
The insects, which feed on rice and grasses, live up to 15 days before reproducing and dying, Jahn said. While the planthopper appears every year at this time, its arrival in such large numbers appears to be a freak incident, and the insect overwhelmed its natural predators, Jahn said.
The creatures feed by sucking the sap out of the rice seedling, effectively killing the plant. An outbreak of this size takes up to two days to “burn” a hectare of rice plants, Jahn said. The planthoppers die immediately after they mate, producing from 100 to 300 eggs.
Jahn predicted that predators, combined with the insect’s tendency to spread out over wide areas in search of food, will curb the outbreak within a month.