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Plant clinics should replace narrow pesticide control measures to ensure that poor farmers can have healthy plants, argues Eric Boa.

Millions of poor people in developing countries rely on their crops for survival. For the governments of these nations, keeping plants healthy should be a high priority — yet most farmers cannot get help when and where they need it.

Strategies that address pesticide misuse and over-reliance on chemicals are not enough. A new vision of plant health services is needed.

Pesticide control: a narrow vision

Government agricultural policies in developing countries have focused on integrated pest management (IPM), a pest control strategy aimed at reducing the use of pesticides. IPM has successfully tackled pesticide misuse and cut down farmers' reliance on chemicals — especially for insect pests, where pesticide abuse is a major concern. But it does not provide small farmers with basic health services to provide advice based on sound diagnosis.

Similarly, farmer field schools that teach IPM practices help farmers learn about crop pests and diseases and have promoted innovation, but they do not provide plant healthcare.

Yet there is a heartfelt need for advice on the spot. While field schools have encouraged many farmers to adopt IPM for major crop pests, many more farmers need advice on a range of other pests and diseases. These hit poorest farmers the hardest.

Coffee wilt and banana bacterial wilt in central Africa are two recent examples. Research projects and support by extension agents, who advise farmers on agricultural and home economics issues, have helped farmers control these diseases, but such projects come and go and they cannot promote solutions to all farmers in the developing world.

Farmers' wider and persistent plant health needs require a different type of support — one based on regular services that can be sustained locally with help from experts when required.

On the move: mobile clinics for sick plants

Drawing on human health services as a model, new ideas are emerging about providing plant health services through networks of 'doctors', clinics and expert advice, available when and where they are needed.

Mobile plant clinics can promote the solid advances of IPM and farmer field schools and provide reliable plant healthcare for more people at low costs.

The first such plant clinics ran in Bolivia in 2004, with the support of the Global Plant Clinic, a UK-based centre that diagnoses and advises on plant diseases. Now, over 40 of these locally run clinics operate regularly in Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Nicaragua and Uganda. Pilots have also been run in another six countries.

'Plant doctors' — local agronomists and extension agents — staff these clinics to diagnose plant health problems and recommend 'safe, sound and suitable' pest management methods that are both affordable and locally available. Examples include removing diseased plants in Nicaragua to prevent the citrus leprosis virus from emerging or using improved seed to reduce parsley leaf of tomato in Bolivia.

In Butembo in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, the clinics attract hundreds of farmers every week.

In Nicaragua they are held in markets, outside farmer cooperative shops and next to bus terminals. The success of the clinics has prompted diagnostic laboratories across the country to form an easily accessible network so that farmers can send samples for analysis. In this way, clinics have identified new diseases in regions that are difficult to monitor regularly, such as a new tomato virus or early detection of bacterial wilt in potatoes.

Poor farmers need a voice

But there is a long way to go before plant health services receive the attention they deserve in policy debates.

Medical doctors and veterinarians are powerful voices in advocating better health services for people and animals. The World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health are global actors in lobbying for better health services.

The nearest equivalents for plants are the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC). Both are concerned about wider access to technical support and advice for plant pests and diseases but this needs to be expressed more clearly through stronger policies promoting plant health services.

Poor farmers don't have a 'voice'. In theory it's more the FAO's than IPPC's job to articulate this but the real responsibility lies with individual governments. Yet their only response so far has been to use farmer field schools in the misguided belief that this is enough. It is not.

Mobile plant health clinics provide a new way to reach the 'missing millions' and improve poor farmers' access to plant healthcare. Clinics that diagnose and treat health problems work for people and animals, so why not for plants?

Eric Boa has over 20 years experience in tree pathology and plant health delivery systems in the developing world and is manager of the Global Plant Clinic, United Kingdom.