A One Health approach to plant health 

The evolution of global food systems and improved crop varieties have enabled hundreds of millions of people to achieve food and nutrition security. However, with this evolution, the challenges that have emerged from climate change, germplasm exchange, and international food trade are formidable and require novel approaches that combine viewpoints and technologies in a productive and efficient manner. 

The issue of plant health lies at the center of these challenges: How to improve agriculture to anticipate and adapt to future challenges? As strong food systems depend on healthy plants, so small farmers in the world poorest countries will need to be equipped with relevant information and support to ensure that appropriate food production sustains into the future. For this reason, the UN declared 2020 the International Year of Plant Health. 

Today – in the fourth of four CGIAR webinars on the topic – global experts and 516 participants gathered online to discuss plant health and ideas to examine plant health and agriculture from a “One Health” approach – a collaborative and transdisciplinary perspective that recognizes the health of people, animals, plants and their environments as closely connected. In this approach, agricultural practices and plant health outcomes are both determined by, and contribute to, ecological, animal and human health. 

The webinar was hosted by Jeff Waage, a professor of International Development at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and affiliated with the CGIAR’s Agriculture for Nutrition and Health Program 

Waage opened the session with a brief summary of the One Health approach, which has its roots in concerns about zoonotic disease and how they can be transferred from animals (especially livestock) to humans. One Health began as a collaboration between veterinarians and public health scientists to develop protocols for detecting and preventing the spread of pathogens from animals to humans. 

“More recently, this concept has been enlarged to describe agriculture and the environment. So it is logical to include plant health,” Waage said. “However, plant health within a One Health approach is a relatively unexplored area. We need to create better and more inclusive intersectoral approaches that enable healthy plants with co-benefits for animals, the environment and humans.” 

To help understand the size and scope of the interconnectedness between different agriculture sectors and the environment, Navin Ramankutty, professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change and Food Security at the University of British Columbia, presented a few stark facts: 

 “With our growing population, we know that more food is needed to keep pace with that growth. But agriculture already contributes 34% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, uses 75% of our freshwater, and is the largest driver of biodiversity loss, especially for birds. So the challenge is how to increase production to feed the planet without intensifying agriculture’s impact on the environment. Fixing agriculture is key to human and planetary health. 

Ramankutty discussed sustainable intensification of agriculture, a holistic approach to production that attempts to increase yields while reducing or minimizing inputs. Approaches such as this have greater impact than organic farming by comparison, but also yield approximately 30% more food. 

A One Health approach is also an effective means for preventing the spread of pathogens and limiting antimicrobial resistance in plants and animals, which can negate the effect of important medicines to ensure food safety. Arshnee Moodley, the Team Leader in Antimicrobial Resistance at the International Livestock Research Instituteexplained how resistance to medicine can spread within our ecosystem – moving from animal to person and plants, and from country to country. 

“One obvious way to minimize antimicrobial resistance is by reducing the amount of antibiotics we use in livestock. In fact, 73% of global antibiotics are used in livestock. But reducing this use means improving other farming practices to keep livestock clean and healthy,” said Moodley. “This becomes a challenge for lower-income countries where they cannot afford the measures and technologies necessary for better prevention and where antibiotics are more convenient in the short-term.”  

Rousseau Djouaka, a molecular entomologist with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, provided a second example to Moodley’s with a description of how agrochemical misuse in one agricultural sector (e.g., crops) can migrate to livestock, humans and the environment. “The One Health approach starts from the recognition that life is not segmented. All is connected,” he said.  

Solutions through a One Health approach will require more than technical interventions. Behavioral change on the part of farmers, consumers and governments will also be necessary. 

Vivian Hoffman, a senior research fellow in the Markets, Trade and Institutions Division of the International Food Policy Research Institute, explained how her research attempted to understand the best ways to incentivize farming and market practices that minimize plant-associated hazards.  

She shared research from Ghana regarding aflatoxins in groundnuts. “While we found that information, subsidies and price levels could all influence better farming practices, subsidies had the greatest effect. But we could not rely on subsidies as the only approach,” Hoffman said. “We need to learn how to get farmers on-board and make these interventions worth their time and investment.” 

Working with farmers, of course, means working with men and women, said Janice Olawoye, the former Dean in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry at the University of Ibadan. “The One Health approach acknowledges that women have a unique perspective and orientation to plants and agriculture. Their viewpoints and investment must be acknowledged. If we understand the roles and constraints of women in agriculture, we will have a fuller understanding of how pathogens move through our systems and across sectors.” 

At the International Potato Center (CIP), improving plant health for strengthening food systems is a central focus of the organization’s research.  

  • The genebank at CIP in Lima, Peru maintains clonal and seed collections of potato, sweetpotato, and Andean roots and tubers (ARTC’s). The genebank is maintained as a global public good under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).  CIP’s germplasm is available to requestors for research, education, and breeding purposes. This germplasm has been used in breeding programs in over 100 countries. CIP is the custodian of the world’s largest in vitro genebank. It also houses one of the world’s leading herbarium collections and cryopreservation program.
  • Since its inception, the CIP genebank has distributed more than 107,000 germplasm for improved pest- and disease resistant varieties to 164 countries to help small holder farmers grow more food and to improve nutrition for families around the world.  

Today’s webinar was the last of four hosted this year. The earlier webinars are available on YouTube:

Webinar 1: Climate Change and Plant Health 

Webinar 2: Germplasm Health in Preventing Transboundary Spread

Webinar 3: Integrated Pest and Disease Management 

Webinar 4: A One Health Approach