Safeguarding food security with phytosanitation

Giovanna Muller in one of the International Potato Center’s greenhouses. The Potato Center’s Germplasm Health Unit assures that researchers and farmers receive material free of pests and disease.

By the year 2050, the global population is estimated to exceed 9 billion. We will need to feed more people with fewer resources while addressing the challenges posed by climate change. An expected side-effect of rising temperatures is a population boom of the insects and diseases that threaten agricultural productivity. The Food and Agriculture Organization deems pests and diseases as the second most significant threat to nature because of the severity of their impact on human, plant and animal health, people’s ability to generate income, and the economy itself. Giovanna Muller, Head of the International Potato Center (CIP) Science Laboratories Unit and Interim Deputy Head of the Germplasm Health Quarantine Unit shares insights on phytosanitation’s essential role in mitigating the spread of pests and diseases to ensure that farmers attain optimal harvests.

What role does phytosanitation play in food security?

Plant health or phytosanitation is essential from the perspective of food security because pests and diseases impact crops. They have a direct effect on productivity and in some cases, depending on the diseases, even on processing quality. For example, Zebra chip disease causes specific undesirable patterns on potato chips rendering them unsellable, which ultimately affects producer income.

What impact do globalization and climate change have on the incidence of pests and diseases?

Phytosanitary vigilance and prevention work to diminish the impact of pests and diseases at the global level. In the context of climate change and globalization, pests and diseases have begun to change their behavior and distribution.  In the case of cross-border pests, as they extend to regions where they were once absent, they are going to have a significant impact on production.  It is essential that we are all aware of this and not just those who are directly involved in plant health work. The general public needs to understand the risks involved when transporting agricultural material. When someone takes a bouquet of flowers from one region to another, it may seem innocuous, but they might carry insect vectors and diseases, which can establish and extend themselves into new areas. Raising awareness on the importance of this work can help diminish these effects.

What tools has CIP helped to develop that contribute to pest and disease management?

Our recent work has had a considerable focus on phytosanitation in the field and more and more so on the different entities charged with maintaining plant health. We are developing and making use of technologies which help them be more efficient in diagnosing and controlling pests and diseases. CIP has been working on rapid disease diagnostic mobile apps and special software to monitor and predict insect range expansion in different crops and different climatic conditions. These are essential tools to assist decision-making and to help users take appropriate and opportune measures to control pests and pathogens. It is also important to note that we realize the importance of communicating with and building the capacity of field extension agents and farmers in these technologies. We need to help them see that these tools can help them become more resilient and increases their ability to react and take action when faced with these challenges, with the goal of reducing the effects of pests and diseases.

How does CIP’s phytosanitary work benefit smallholder farmers?

CIP has a mission to distribute, at the global level, the germplasm in its custody to anyone who may need it. The material that we share, whether it comes from our (genebank) collection or our plant breeders, needs to have the highest phytosanitary status—free of pests and diseases and meeting all the requirements imposed by the requesting country. In this way, we guarantee safe transfer so that it achieves its maximum output in the field.

One example is our work in repatriating plant varieties. Due to social or weather catastrophes, some farmers may lose their genetic resources. CIP works to repatriate these genetic resources to communities in need. CIP returns native varieties to their places of origin that are in their peak phytosanitary state, so that these communities have genetic resources in optimal conditions ready to produce new harvests.