Smallholder farming produces 50% of the world’s food and holds great promise for strengthening global food systems and improving livelihoods in the poorest countries. But climate change impacts are increasing the precarity of this occupation, exacerbating many challenges to agriculture, including the spread of crop pests and disease.
As the world shifts to address the many questions posed by climate change, researchers are focused on improving agriculture to anticipate and adapt to future challenges. Robust food systems begin with healthy plants, and healthy plants are key to ensuring support and livelihoods for small farmers in the world’s poorest countries. For this reason, the UN declared 2020 the International Year of Plant Health.
Today – in the third of four CGIAR webinars on the topic – global experts and more than 500 participants gathered online to discuss integrated approaches for managing transboundary crop pests and diseases and their implications for agri-food system sustainability, social inclusion, and gender equity.
“We are living in a shrinking world of trade, travel and climate change. These elements cause uncertainty among farmers around the world,” said Rob Bertram, Chief Scientist in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security with United States Agency for International Development (USAID). “We‘re now seeing how climate variability can drive new problems and threaten food security for hundreds of millions of people around the world.”
What we need, Bertram said to open the meeting, are combinations of science with global partnerships to share knowledge and improve our reaction time and surveillance of these mobile threats to our crops.
Indeed, the unique challenge of crop pests and disease is their mobility and transboundary spread. B.M. Prasanna, Director of the Global Maize Program at the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat, gave an example of the fall army worm, a pest that can travel up to 500km in its life cycle, infecting crops as it moves. This mobility inherent to the species is magnified by secondary movements facilitated by contaminated field equipment and international sea and air traffic.
As an example of the holistic approaches needed for improved integrated pest management, Prasanna cited work at the International Potato Center (CIP), which combines research to identify disease resistant genes, improved technologies for field surveillance, and regional networks to monitor the spread of pests and disease.
Prasanna and Regina Eddy, the Coordinator of the Fall Armyworm Interagency Task Force with USAID, stressed the need for collaboration and knowledge sharing at local, national and regional levels. Eddy noted that while digital tools for pest surveillance had improved significantly in the past decade, “understanding how actors at various scales can better leverage these tools in collaboration with broader platforms” is the most important step.
Prasanna agreed: “Integrated pest management is about people’s mindsets and policies more than technology and practice. It is about building capacity and working together.”
Changing mindset and leveraging partnerships effectively will require inclusive action that considers gender perspectives as both men and women are involved in agriculture and gender relationships matter in crop management, according to Nozomi Kawarazuka, a social anthropologist with CIP. She told the audience that a lack of gender perspectives had been a major impediment in the quest to increase adoption of improved technologies and practices that would help control the spread of pests and disease. “To achieve our goals, collaboration between social and biophysical scientists to co-design innovation is essential.”
Annet Mulema, a sociologist at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) seconded Kawarazuka’s comments and suggested that participatory community engagement and learning are key helping improve awareness and agronomic practices that would help curtail pest and disease spread.
“Failing to note gender-based differences in household roles and power dynamics may disproportionately expose these families to the risk” of diseases on their farms.
At the International Potato Center (CIP), improving plant health for strengthening food systems is a central focus of the organization’s research.
- CIP’s genebank is the world’s largest repository of genetic material for potato, sweetpotato, and Andean roots and tubers. This collection ensures that crop plants which may contain genes to resist disease, provide enhanced nutrition, or survive in changing or harsh environments do not become endangered or extinct over time.
- 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.
The fourth of the four webinars on plant health is scheduled for March 31 and will focus on a OneHealth approach to plant health.
A video replay of webinar 3 is available here.