Protecting plant health for food and nutritional security

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Robust and resilient agrifood systems begin with healthy crops. Without healthy crops the food security and livelihoods of millions of resource-constrained smallholder famers in low- and middle-income countries would be in jeopardy. Yet, climate change and globalization are exacerbating the occurrence and spread of devastating insect-pests and pathogens.

Each year, plant diseases cost the global economy an estimated $220 billion — and invasive insect-pests at least $70 billion more. In addition, mycotoxins such as aflatoxins pose serious threats to the health and wellbeing of consumers. Consumption of mycotoxin-contaminated food can cause acute illness, and has been associated with increased risk of certain cancers and immune deficiency syndromes.

Effective plant health management requires holistic approaches that strengthen global and local surveillance and monitoring capacities, and mitigate negative impacts through rapid, robust responses to outbreaks with ecologically friendly, socially-inclusive and sustainable management approaches.

Over the decades, CGIAR has built a strong foundation for fostering holistic plant health protection efforts through its global network of Germplasm Health Units, as well as pathbreaking rapid-response efforts to novel transboundary threats to several important crops, including maize, wheat, rice, bananas, cassava, potatoes and grain legumes.

On May 12, 2022, CGIAR is launching the Plant Health and Rapid Response to Protect Food Security and Livelihoods Initiative (Plant Health Initiative). It presents a unified and transdisciplinary strategy to protect key crops — including cereals, legumes, roots, tubers, bananas and vegetables — from devastating pests and diseases, as well as mycotoxin contamination. CGIAR Centers will pursue this critical work together with national, regional and international partner institutions engaged in plant health management.

A comprehensive strategy

Prevention. When and where possible, prevention is always preferable to racing to find a cure. Reactive approaches, followed by most institutions and countries, generally focus on containment and management actions after a pest outbreak, especially pesticide use. These approaches may have paid off in the short- and medium-term, but they are not sustainable long-term. It has become imperative to take proactive actions on transboundary pest management through globally coordinated surveillance, diagnostics and deployment of plant health solutions, as well as dynamic communications and data sharing.

To this end, under this Initiative CGIAR will produce a diagnostics and surveillance toolbox. It will include low-cost and robust assays, genomics- and bioinformatics-based tools for pathogen diagnosis and diversity assessment, as well as information and communications technologies for real-time data collection and crowdsourcing. This will be complemented by the development of interoperable databases, epidemiological and risk assessment models, and evidence-based guidance frameworks for prioritizing biosecurity measures and rapid response efforts to high-risk insect-pests and diseases.

Adoption of integrated approaches. The goal of integrated pest and disease management is to economically suppress pest populations using techniques that support healthy crops. An effective management strategy will judiciously use an array of appropriate approaches, including clean seed systems, host-plant resistance, biological control, cultural control and the use of environmentally safer pesticides to protect crops from economic injury without adversely impacting the environment.

Through the Plant Health Initiative, CGIAR will promote system-based solutions using ecofriendly integrated pest and disease management innovation packages to effectively mitigate the impact of major insect-pests and diseases affecting crop plants. It will also implement innovative pre- and post-harvest mycotoxin management tools and processes.

Integrating people’s mindsets. The lack of gender and social perspectives in plant health surveillance, technology development, access to extension services and impact evaluation is a major challenge in plant health management. To address this, CGIAR will prioritize interdisciplinary data collection and impact evaluation methods to identify context-specific social and gender related constraints, opportunities and needs, as well as generate evidence-based recommendations for policy makers and stakeholders.

Interface with global and regional Initiatives. The Plant Health Initiative will build on the critical, often pioneering work of CGIAR. It will also work closely with other CGIAR global initiatives — including Accelerated Breeding, Seed Equal, Excellence in Agronomy and Harnessing Equality for Resilience in Agrifood Systems — and Regional Integrated Initiatives. Together, this network will help support CGIAR’s work towards developing and deploying improved varieties with insect-pest and disease resistance, coupled with context-sensitive, sustainable agronomic practices, in a gender- and socially-inclusive manner.

Targeting localized priorities with strategic partnerships

Effective plant health monitoring and rapid response efforts rely on the quality of cooperation and communication among relevant partner institutions. In this Initiative, CGIAR places special emphasis on developing and strengthening regional and international networks, and building the capacity of local institutions. It will enable globally and regionally coordinated responses by low- and middle-income countries to existing and emerging biotic threats.

To this end, CGIAR will work closely with an array of stakeholders, including national plant protection organizations, national agricultural research and extension systems, advanced research institutions, academia, private sector, and phytosanitary coordination networks.

The geographic focus of interventions under this Initiative will be primarily low- and middle-income countries in Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Coupled with CGIAR’s commitment to engaging, mobilizing and empowering stakeholders at various scales across the globe, the Plant Health Initiative represents an enormous step towards integrating people’s mindsets, capacities and needs towards holistic and sustainable plant health management. It will ultimately protect the food and nutritional security and livelihoods of millions of smallholders and their families.

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