Tackling crop losses at the root means sharing knowledge

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By Dr Ulrich Kuhlmann, Executive Director Global Operations, CABI


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ACABIll farmers are affected by pests and diseases attacking their crops, but smallholder farmers and their dependents in low- and middle-income countries are disproportionately affected. To put it in perspective, there are about 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide who feed about 70% of the world’s population. When you cultivate less than a hectare (2.5 acres) of land and rely on your crops for both sustenance and income, fighting pests can become a battle for life and death. International trade and climate change are exacerbating the problem by altering and accelerating the spread of crop pests.

Occasionally, when a particularly destructive pest surfaces, it can make headline news. Last year it was reported that the tomato leaf miner moth (tuta absoluta) was wreaking havoc across Africa, causing USD 5 million of damage in Nigeria alone and driving up the price of tomatoes, a food staple. Earlier this year, the fall armyworm made the news for devastating maize crops from Ghana to South Africa. But for smallholder farmers the battle against pests is a daily struggle, not an intermittent occurrence.

Increasing agricultural productivity will play a major part in delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For rural communities, economic development often starts on the farm, which is why agricultural interventions are so effective. By enabling farmers to increase their agricultural productivity, it allows them to improve their livelihoods (SDG1) and become more food secure (SDG2). This kick-starts a virtuous circle: with better nutrition, their children have a healthier start in life (SDG3) and, more often than not, the first thing that people spend additional income on is their children’s education (SDG4), which is, in turn, the driver for long-term economic development (SDG8) and innovation (SDG9) for entire communities.

So how do you increase agricultural productivity? Agricultural productivity is measured as the ratio of agricultural inputs to agricultural outputs. One way to increase it is to simply reduce the volume of inputs – whether soil, seeds or irrigation – by making them more effective. There are numerous donor-funded initiatives doing just that, including, for example, the Africa Soil Health Consortium or the AgWater Solutions project. Even private sector organisations such as East-West Seed, who specifically develop planting materials for smallholder farmers in developing markets, play their part.

In many cases these interventions require additional resources, which are unavailable to the poorest farmers. If you cannot afford to change inputs, your only option is to address the other side of the equation and reduce crop losses. However, pests and diseases do not recognise farm boundaries and can often spread very rapidly across an entire region. Consequently, the challenge of crop losses must be addressed on both the micro level and the macro level.

On the micro level, that is to say the individual farm, the best way to reduce crop losses is through better agricultural practices such as crop rotation, planting methods and more rational use of agro-chemicals. These skills and techniques are familiar to many farmers, but many smallholder farmers face a sizable knowledge gap. National agricultural advisory services educate farmers in better agricultural practices and have been shown to be highly effective in improving farm productivity.[1]

However, in many countries these advisory services suffer from chronic understaffing and limited funding. Evidence from Africa, for example, shows that there is only one adviser per 950 farmers in Kenya, 2 500 in Uganda, and 3 420 in Nigeria.[2] A crucial solution to reduce crop losses at the micro level is therefore to increase investment in agricultural advisory services so that farmers benefit from improved knowledge.

On the macro level, the best way to reduce crop losses caused by pests and diseases is to prevent them from happening in the first place, or at least limiting the spread if there is an outbreak. Unfortunately, National Plant Protection Organisations (NPPOs) are often put into a catch-22 situation. Under the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), countries are obliged to report new pests but doing so can have an adverse effect on trade as agricultural exports may be quarantined. On the other hand, reporting it late means that the response may be too late for its farmers and the pest can spread to more countries – as with the tomato leaf miner and the fall armyworm.

The solution to reduce crop losses at the macro level is for countries to become better at monitoring pest outbreaks and responding to them before the problem grows out of control. Such early-warning systems are reliant on detailed and timely data about what is happening in farmers’ fields across a region. The regulatory and policy response to pest outbreaks also must be rapid, robust and based on a thorough understanding of the issue.

What connects both the micro and macro level solutions is knowledge, and improving knowledge is at the heart of what CABI does. Our Plantwise programme, winner of last year’s OECD DAC Prize and the Bond Innovation Awards, is supporting the fight against crop losses on both levels. Working with relevant partners, we help agricultural advisory services establish networks of plant clinics where farmers can take their affected crops for diagnosis and pest management advice. Independent evaluations have shown that yields significantly improve when farmers apply the advice received at the plant clinic.

Plant clinics also collect data about the farmers and their crops, supporting in-country pest surveillance and helping them fulfil their obligations to the IPPC. CABI helps countries analyse this data and supports them in developing tools to respond quickly to emerging plant health problems. For example, in Sri Lanka a new banana pest was first reported at a plant clinic, which meant that national plant protection actions were activated within days, preventing major losses. In Pakistan, Plantwise prevented a pest from wiping out papaya crops using biocontrol methods.

Plantwise’s key innovation is its unique cyclical flow of information. As a result, everyone benefits from improved knowledge, which ultimately leads to reduced crop losses and increased agricultural productivity. Our project may be unique, but the model need not be – and it does not have to be limited to the agricultural sector. Sharing knowledge is a net gain for everyone.

[1] Taye, H., 2013. Evaluating the Impact of Agricultural Extension Programmes in sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and Prospects, African Evaluation Journal 1(1), Art. #19. Available under http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/aej.v1i1.19

[2] Sones, K. R., Oduor, G. I., Watiti, J. W., Romney, D., (2015). Communicating with Small-holder Farming Families – A Review with a Focus on Agro-dealers and Youth as Intermediaries in sub-Saharan Africa. CAB Reviews, 2015, 10, 030, pp 1-6