Protecting plants, protecting people

Among the many challenges posed by climate change and its impacts on agriculture, improving plant health faces numerous obstacles and yet holds perhaps the greatest potential for strengthening food systems and supporting small farmers in the world’s poorest countries. In view of this fact, the UN declared 2020 the International Year of Plant Health.

Today – in the first of four CGIAR webinars on the topic – global experts and 940 participants gathered online to discuss climate change, plant health and ideas to improve overall our understanding, monitoring and predictive modeling for combating pests and diseases in smallholder agriculture.  

“[The world] loses 20-40% of its food crops each year to pests and disease,” according to Shenggen Fan, a member of the CGIAR System Board and Chair Professor, China Agricultural University. “Meanwhile, we have 800 million people suffering from hunger and nutrition deficiencies. It is easy to see this food could be used to improve lives in this population.”

Moreover, understanding the relationship between climate change and plant health is key to conserving biodiversity and important balances between production today and  for future generationsTo this point, Sonja Vermeulen, Director of Programs for the CGIAR, opened the webinar providing an overview of how temperature and water variability influences the spread and incidence of disease in plants while degrading soils and important genetic resources that could be used to respond to future climate change impacts. 

While the challenges are significant, the tone from all the panelists suggested that researchers find themselves in a key moment to enhance our knowledge of plant health through holistic analysis and global collaboration to share and integrate data. 

Karen Garrett, a Preeminent Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of Florida, discussed the needs for establishing a global surveillance system for pests and pathogens to improve strategies for minimizing crop loss. She cited the CGIAR’s Research Program on Big Data as one example of an important platform for enabling such cooperation across continents.

“Developing improved crop varieties to grow in emerging climates is very important,” she told the panel, “but we also need to be able to predict how diseases will change so we can be ahead of the curve in responding to the needs of small farmers. 

While Big Data can provide the important bird’s eye view of climate change, pests and pathogens, Ana Maria Loboguerro, the Head of Global Policy Research for the CGIAR Research Program for Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), reminded the panel that science also needs to focus on putting more power in the hands of individual farmers on the ground. She suggested that researchers focus on making a stronger business case to attract private investment in digital tools that enable farmers to analyze and share information in real-time for quicker and more effective response.  

Plant pests and disease can also spread through trade of agricultural products and after humanitarian crises in the crops distributed by relief organizations. For this reason, several panelists noted the need for global phytosanitary standards to ensure that pathogens can be confined and limited in their countries of origin without disrupting the necessary transportation of food to vulnerable populations.

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. 
  • In collaboration with scientists from the Central Potato Research Institute in India, CIP is providing germplasm and assisting with field trials to develop early-maturing and heat-resistant varieties for improved yields for smallholder farmers in Assam and Odisha states. One early potato clone – Kufri Lima – was released in 2017 and farmers are seeing 20% higher yields and profits, as they can plant this variety earlier in the season and fetch premium prices at market.  
  • Developing climate smart varieties plant health is more than developing climate resilience. For some crops, biofortification means delivering more nutrition with lower inputs. At CIP, researchers and partners have made great strides to increase the amount of micronutrients in potato, sweetpotato and other root and tuber crops. For struggling families, these improvements can bolster nutrition even in times of lower yields and can alleviate concerns about future expenses related to child health and development. 
  • Both potato and sweetpotato, the third and sixth most important food crops globally, have traits that breeders are using to develop climate-resilient varieties. Sweetpotato has greater heat tolerance and requires less rainfall than most staple crops, and drought-tolerant varieties often produce food when other crops wither and die. Early-maturing varieties are ready for harvest in less than four months, and their leaves can be eaten just two months after planting when food is scarce. Sweetpotato contributes to food security and the reduction of vitamin A deficiency, one of the most harmful forms of malnourishment for children under five and women of reproductive age.  

The second of the four webinars on plant health is scheduled for February 17 and will focus on germplasm health in preventing the transboundary spread of pests and pathogens. 

A video replay of webinar 1 is availablhere: