Opinion

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

Dr Washington Otieno

Technology is key to strengthening plant health systems

An estimated 40% of crops grown annually are lost to pests. Due to increased trade, swift international travel, tourism and climate change, pests spread more rapidly. This results in damage that reduces productivity and income, whilst also causing adverse effects on biodiversity, increasing farmers’ reliance on pesticides and vulnerability to climate damage. Adopting climate-smart agriculture could feed millions more people, make farmers more resilient to the shocks of climate change, and mitigate the effects of agriculture on the environment. 

Studies have shown that the best way to bring knowledge to farmers on reducing crop losses continues to be through local extension officers. Plantwise, a global programme led by CABI, works to strengthen extension services by improving national plant health systems. Under Plantwise, agricultural extension officers are trained to serve as ‘plant doctors’ who run regular ‘plant clinics’ where farmers can take samples of affected crops for diagnosis and receive advice. The guidance given to farmers emphasises integrated pest management-based solutions.  

In the face of climate change and increased pest risks, Plantwise provides farmers with information they need to reduce crop losses.  

Knowledge 

The plant clinics are reinforced by the Plantwise Knowledge Bank, a gateway to plant health information. Data about the farmers, the crops, and the pests is collected at plant clinics and fed into this Knowledge Bank. The data contributes to creating country-specific databases that can be used to track the spread of pests and map their distribution across countries and regions in real-time. This enables the identification of new crop health problems and a quick response, thereby increasing farmer resilience. 

Technology 

The plant clinic service is being transformed with the introduction of tablet computers and integration of digital devices. As a result, plant doctors can access resources more readily and collect data more efficiently. The use of social media and messaging apps, such as Telegram, enables plant doctors to share their findings with each other and deliver advice to farmers through mobile phone messaging. The tablets also support data collection apps which generate prescriptions that are forwarded to farmers. These can be easily shared throughout farmer networks, extending the reach to many more than those who have interacted with a plant doctor directly. 

Policy 

Data from plant clinics and the ICT infrastructure for data collection and information sharing have provided countries with an opportunity to establish systems for pest surveillance, pest alerts and early warning. Many Plantwise countries, such as Ghana, Kenya and Trinidad and Tobago, have integrated plant clinic operations within their extension services and fund the activities themselves. In these countries, the enhanced flow of information between farmers, extension services, research and regulatory bodies has substantially improved the systems for managing plant health. For example, in Myanmar, the Plantwise approach has been embedded into the Plant Health System Strategy that was officially adopted by the government in 2017. 

Providing knowledge that enables smallholder farmers to lose less of what they grow through pest infestation has a transformational impact: improving their livelihoods; making them food secure and resilient to economic and environmental shocks.

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.