During the recent International Day of Plant Health, a group of experts from across the globe sat together in a webinar. Agenda: to discuss and address the challenges facing plant health management capacity in the global south
By Bernadette Murgor
Drawn from different continents, the panel of eminent experts shared their vast experiences and rich insights during the one-hour event that was organised by CGIAR Plant Health Initiative. The event shed light on the urgency of addressing transboundary pests, diseases, and mycotoxins, which have wreaked havoc on agriculture, economies, and the environment.
Top on the list accruing from the discussions, strong collaborations between global and regional stakeholders, increased financial resources, long-term initiatives, capacity building, innovation, and sustainable practices emerged as major factors that are necessary for addressing the challenges of plant health management capacity.
In the past decade, the region has faced a relentless invasion of devastating transboundary pests and diseases, posing significant threats to economies, food security, and the environment.
Six epidemics in Africa in the past decade
According to Dr Prassana Boddupalli, Africa alone has witnessed six epidemics, leading to substantial economic losses, and raising concerns among governments, farmers, and stakeholders. Additionally, the excessive use of toxic pesticides has further exacerbated the environmental impact, while mycotoxins, produced by fungi, have contaminated food and nutrition sources, affecting millions of consumers, trade, and economies.
The staggering statistics reveal the gravity of the situation. In Africa, potential annual export losses due to pests and diseases reach USD 100 million. When combined with Latin America and Asia, the figure becomes even more alarming. Liver cancer cases related to mycotoxins account for 30 per cent of all cases in Africa, while 40 per cent of commodities in African markets exceed allowable food safety levels.
Against this backdrop, the International Day of Plant Health held on May 12, 2023, provided an opportune moment for the experts to deliberate on these issues. The theme of the webinar was, ‘Strengthening Plant Health Management Capacity in the Global South’.
“Healthy plants are critical for a healthy planet. Annually, crop losses amount to almost 30 per cent due to devastating pests and diseases. We cannot sustain food security and livelihoods of millions of smallholders if we cannot tackle the threats of plant health risks of pests and diseases,” said Dr Boddupalli, who is the Lead for CGIAR Plant Health Initiative.
Collaborations and partnerships
To effectively manage these risks, the experts stressed the importance of collaboration among multiple institutions. “Plant health management cannot be undertaken sustainably and successfully by a single organisation. We need the collective experience, expertise, and wisdom of multiple institutions,” he added, saying that multi-disciplinarity is very crucial for plant health management.
“Global scientific collaborations are integral to ensure policy recommendations are well informed by robust evidence and are, therefore, likely to succeed,” said Dr Dumisani Kutywayo, chief director, department of Research and Specialist services in the Ministry of Land and Agriculture in Zimbabwe.
“Research under the CGIAR Plant Health Initiative can play a significant role in collecting and disseminating data on some crops and pests and diseases. This can guide scientists and policymakers on where to prioritise and therefore contribute to impactful research agenda. It can also inform on decision-making at the top of the plant health system,” he added.
Increased use of chemical pesticides
However, the increased use of chemical pesticides is a cause for concern, particularly due to its disproportionate impact on women and marginalised communities. Educational disparities contribute to gender disparities, placing women at higher risk. It is essential to address these inequalities and promote sustainable and equitable plant health management practices.
One of the key challenges highlighted during the webinar was the weak national phytosanitary capacities in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Mr Lava Kumar of IITA stressed the need to enhance these capacities to anticipate, predict, and rapidly respond to pest incursions. Strengthening capacities for proactive monitoring, data-driven approaches, and policy development were identified as essential steps to counter the threats effectively.
Integrated Pest and Disease Management (IPM) emerged as a critical strategy, but its scaling in the Global South remains a major challenge. Dr Boddupalli, who is also the director, Global Maize Program at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), emphasised the need to integrate biological, ecological, and socioeconomic aspects into IPM packages and address factors such as user preferences.
“We have to intensify our collective efforts in developing, integrating, validating and scaling ecofriendly plant health innovations,” he said, pointing out that in Africa, Asia and Latin America, under the Plant Health Initiative, CGIAR had nine innovation platforms that bring together researchers, farming communities, extension agencies into one platform to validate innovations and IPM packages.
“For example, our Fall Armyworm platform at Kiboko Kenya, brings farmers and extension agencies together to validate IPM innovations.”
Dr Chandish Ballal, a former director of ICAR_National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources, India, suggested that IPM should be incorporated into school and college curricula to educate future farmers and extension personnel. Collaboration between researchers, farming communities, and extension agencies through innovation platforms was also highlighted as an effective way to validate IPM packages.
Dr Zachary Kinyua, assistant plant health director at the Kenya Agriculture Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and a molecular plant pathologist, highlighted the importance of addressing both existing and future threats.
“The region has experienced multiple pest and disease outbreaks, including MLN, Fall Armyworm, nematodes, and many others. Farmers bear the brunt of these outbreaks and rely on public and private institutions for support. Therefore, collaboration and partnerships among institutions are essential to tackle the challenges effectively,” he said, pointing out that technical teams consisting of various institutions, regulatory agencies, county governments, and the private sector have proven successful in providing rapid technical direction for management operations in Kenya.
Funding a critical issue
Funding also emerged as a critical issue hindering capacity building and sustainability in plant health management as pointed out by Egesi Chiedozie, executive director & CEO, NRCRI from Nigeria. He added that inconsistent political will, fluctuating government support, resistant attitudes among farmers, and inadequate infrastructure were among other challenges.
Place of women and gender issues in plant health management
The experts also highlighted the significance of gender and social inclusion in plant health management. Women farmers and socially marginalized groups play important roles in pest and disease management but often lack access to extension training and information. Developing technologies, promoting digitalisation, and incorporating labour-saving tools can empower women and young farmers, ensuring their participation and contribution to early detection and warning systems.
“If we want real transformation in plant health gender and social inclusion have to be key components. We need to develop technologies for women farmers and social marginalised groups,” said Nzomi Kwarazuka – Scientist, gender research.
Plant health management is critical for sustainable agriculture, food security, and environmental preservation. As the webinar came to a close, the experts reiterated the need for urgent action and collaborative efforts to strengthen plant health management in the Global South.
Moving forward, it is crucial to prioritise capacity-building programmes that empower farmers, extension workers, and researchers with the necessary knowledge and tools. Training programs should focus on integrated approaches, encompassing pest and disease identification, surveillance and monitoring techniques, and sustainable pest management strategies. These programmes should also emphasize the adoption of eco-friendly practices to minimise the use of harmful pesticides and promote the conservation of beneficial organisms.
Early warning systems
Furthermore, the establishment of robust early warning systems and information sharing platforms is essential. Timely and accurate information about pest outbreaks, emerging diseases, and effective control measures can help farmers make informed decisions and take proactive measures to protect their crops.
“My greatest priority would be to establish a formal regional plant health surveying system, which would be an important plant health management tool. There is need for collaboration in pest surveillance and to strengthen the connection of key stakeholders,” said Dr Khaled Makkouk, vice president, International Society of Plant Pathology.
It was also noted that investing in digital technologies, such as mobile applications and remote sensing, can revolutionise data collection, analysis, and dissemination, enabling rapid response and targeted interventions.
Public-private partnerships are key to promoting innovation and ensuring the accessibility of advanced plant health technologies in the Global South. Collaboration between research institutions, private companies, governments, and farmers’ organizations can accelerate the development and adoption of improved seed varieties, biocontrol agents, and precision farming techniques. Such collaborations can also facilitate the transfer of knowledge and expertise, enabling local farmers to address specific challenges while considering their socio-economic and cultural contexts.
Addressing the funding gap is critical for the long-term sustainability of plant health management initiatives. Donor agencies, governments, and international organisations must increase investments in research and development, infrastructure development, and capacity-building programs. Additionally, policymakers should prioritise plant health management in national agricultural agendas, allocating adequate resources and formulating supportive policies that incentivise sustainable practices.
Raising awareness crucial
Lastly, raising awareness about the importance of plant health among farmers, consumers, and policymakers is vital. Education and outreach programmes should emphasise the significant role that healthy plants play in ensuring food security, reducing poverty, and preserving ecosystems.
The CGIAR Plant Health Initiative aims to protect crops, reduce crop losses, mitigate mycotoxin contamination, and boost the agricultural sector’s resilience. The initiative involves multiple partners, including international research organisations such as CABI, ICIPE, and the WorldVeg organisation. By bridging knowledge gaps and establishing networks, CGIAR aims to strengthen plant health management in the Global South.
The International Plant Health Day commemorated on May 12, was created by the United Nations to raise global awareness on how protecting plant healthcare can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect biodiversity and the environment, and boost economic development.