Opinion

As climate change increases the risk of pests and diseases, can innovations increase farmers’ resilience to this threat?

Paul Castle

It’s not all about ‘high-tech’ solutions

If you were prepared to invest in a new smartphone, why would you buy a second-hand landline? Sounds an unlikely preference. But in another area of technology, it’s a regular reality.  

A farmer‘s single most important choice every season is what to plant. First, he or she has to decide on the crop itself – maize, for example, or potatoes, or vegetables. Then comes the seed.  

There are many dimensions to the seed choice. One of them relates to farmers‘ daily battle against plant diseases. Using their own or neighbours‘ seed from the previous year saves money up front. But along with the seed, a smallholder has often also kept the disease. If planting such seed were a free and well-informed preference, one could possibly make a case for it. But often there‘s no real choice. Many developing countries lack a proper seed market. Without access to certified, disease-free planting material, smallholders are forced to accept a dangerous ‘inheritance‘: pathogens from earlier seasons. 

We, at the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, believe it doesn’t have to be that way. Contrary to some strands of ‘western‘ opinion, in our experience smallholders want technology, and are willing to invest in it. The last thing they need is an NGO insisting that only saved seed is good seed.  

Protection from disease is one reason we’ve created Seeds2B. This initiative aims to give smallholders access to the seeds they want; seeds for healthier crops, higher yields and better incomes. It also aims to create a flourishing landscape of small and medium-sized seed companies in a range of African and Asian countries.   

The customer end of the seed sector is only part of the story, however. Tackling diseases – and the additional challenge of pests – takes more than good market links.  

The process starts with plant breeding. And breeding starts with education. That’s why we‘re helping African universities teach ‘Demand-led breeding‘ (DLB). Historically, public sector breeding has tended to focus on brainy science rather than smallholders‘ actual needs. And among those needs are built-in crop defences against pests and diseases. Our hope is that today’s DLB-educated scientists will bring tomorrow’s healthier crops.  

Working with breeders to tackle specific issues has a long tradition at our Foundation. From 2005-2014, we worked with CIMMYT to develop insect-resistant maize in Kenya. More recently, we’ve been involved in tackling diseases such as Ug99 rust and now Maize Lethal Necrosis.   

Our latest foray into crop defence takes a different approach with the adoption of technologies that were not available just a decade ago! This year‘s ‘Fall Armyworm Tech Prize’ rewards bright ideas for a digital battle against Eastern Africa‘s worst current pest. Our Chief Science Advisor,  Mike Robinson, is on the jury. He and his colleagues have a fascinating task. By October, we’ll know which applications are winning prizes and on their way to helping smallholders.  

Clever apps and wise advice 

But don’t get hung up on technology. Lots of us grew up perfectly happy with dodgy landlines rather than smartphones. And sometimes the best ways of tackling pest and disease are decidedly ‘low-tech‘. Thousands of smallholders growing maize together can get dangerously similar to the much-criticised monoculture of the Americas. In this setting, pests and diseases can spread rapidly. But sometimes, a simple (well, fairly simple – this may require a break with tradition!) change in agronomic practices can make a big difference.  

Add a rotation crop, and one can break the repetitive cycle of destruction by particular pests. Intercropping (sowing rows of different plants beside each other) and a range of other practices can similarly improve farm resilience. And the best of it? This is prevention in good time rather than treatment in a panic. So the Syngenta Foundation continues to devote considerable energy to agricultural advice. We do so directly in the field, at farmers‘ centres and, for example, via radio.  

So what‘s the common theme of all this work, high-tech and low? For us, it’s partnerships. Everything I’ve mentioned here, and indeed everything we do, is a partnership. Large or small, one year or ten, typically public with private, and tackling the challenges of pests and disease from numerous different angles. But as our former Director Marco Ferroni put it, always a “Coalition of the Willing“. 

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.