Why Africa needs adequate plant surveillance

farmer with samples of his diseased plants
Copyright: Sven Torfinn/CABI / Panos

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  • A deadly tomato pest has had devastating impact in Africa
  • But an Africa council formed to protect plants is yet to have a great impact
  • Africa should learn from a similar programme in the United States

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To tackle devastating crop diseases, Africa should boost regional plant surveillance, writes Mustafa O. Jibrin.

Recently, a tomato insect pest, Tuta absoluta, swept across Nigeria, devastating tomato fields and leading to immeasurable financial losses and emotional trauma. T. absoluta originated from the Andean region in South America.
The invasive nature of this pest and its resistance to conventional insecticides make it difficult to control. If not handled properly, it could cause serious damage to the continent’s agriculture.

Protecting Africa’s agriculture

The emergence of T. absoluta on the African agricultural landscape has revived pertinent questions regarding the continent’s capability to protect local agriculture and enhance international trade.
Surely, the World Trade Organization Sanitary and Phytosanitary (WTO-SPS) Agreement empowers individual countries’ plant protection organisations to draw up measures that are strong enough to prevent the introduction of pests that may arise through trade. [1]
Even before the WTO-SPS agreement, Africa’s protection of agriculture relied on the 1968 African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, and the 1985 protocol on protected areas and wild fauna and flora in the East African region.  [2, 3]

“The importance of being battle-ready on a grand scale — rather than leaving those struggling to make ends meet to take up the proverbial arms against a pest they barely know about — is therefore not difficult to see.”

Mustafa O. Jibrin

With the increasing volume of trade between the continent and its partners globally, however, it is difficult to assess how national plant protection agencies have transformed to handle the unique globalisation challenges.
The codification of the WTO-SPS agreement — through the International Plant Protection Convention of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, as international standards for phytosanitary measures — necessarily provides a framework for fairness in implementing national plant protection measures. The onus, however, is on individual national plant protection organisations to keep up with modern technologies, such as utilising molecular biology tools and global positioning system-enabled tools for diagnostics and surveillance.

Having regional plant surveillance

According to CABI (the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International), the pest badly affected agriculture in Egypt and Sudan in 2012. Since then, countries such as Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia also had reports. By 2016, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania had suffered varying levels of damage from this invasive pest.
Although these dates may not represent the exact period when the pests got into each country — as evidenced, for example, in the case of Nigeria where reports of its presence have been recurring for the past two years — it nevertheless provides a guideline of how quickly pest species could spread once they find a conducive climate.
The advantages of having a regional plant surveillance system are easy to see as, apart from phytosanitary measures, invasive species do not necessarily have a defined border. They merely ‘forage’ in the environment that suits their survival.

The European Plant Protection Organization (EPPO), established in 1951, has served as a good template for tackling this. The Inter-African Phytosanitary Council, established at about the same time as the EPPO and strengthened in 2003 by the Maputo declaration on Agriculture and Food Security, is yet to transition into a regional standard body such as the EPPO. Nevertheless, it remains the most viable platform to lead the protection of Africa’s agriculture from invasive pests in all their forms. A slight re-focusing may be all that is needed to strengthen it.

Learning from a US programme

It is pertinent to draw up the example of the United States, which although sits just a few miles away from the South American coasts where T. absoluta is endemic, is free of this pest. What did it do right?
The answer is coordinated surveillance.
Knowing the destructive nature of this pest, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture launched a programme in 2011 to help report incidence and help timely eradication anywhere the pest is found.
The success achieved by this programme would have certainly been limited if individual US states went about controlling the pest on their own.
Africa’s agriculture is still vastly in the hands of smallholder farmers, and poor rural farmers are often the first to bear the brunt of plant pests and disease problems.
Bureaucracy often means that before valuable government responses set in, if any exist at all, farmers have already suffered many forms of hardship from the consequences of poor harvest and crop loss.
The importance of being battle-ready on a grand scale — rather than leaving those struggling to make ends meet to take up the proverbial arms against a pest they barely know about — is therefore not difficult to see. Thus, strengthening national and preferably regional approaches to plant protection is the key.
Mustafa O. Jibrin is a lecturer in Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria, and is currently a doctoral student and a graduate research assistant at the University of Florida. He can be reached at mojbrin@abu.edu.ng
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.