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Rethinking the control of transboundary plant pests and diseases


… as we commemorate the International Year of Plant Health 2020

By Mathew Abang


In Africa, transboundary plant pests and diseases are costly to combat because control efforts are usually undertaken after huge crop losses have already occurred. Improving national capacities to sustainably monitor, prevent and reduce crop losses will have multiple advantages, but there is need for strong commitment and concerted action by all stakeholders. Commemoration of the International Year of Plant Health 2020 provides a unique opportunity to raise the awareness of the public and political decision makers at the global, regional and national levels about plant health’s contribution to national development, writes Mathew Abang, a Plant Production and Protection Officer at the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).


Plants are the foundation of life on earth because they produce the oxygen we breathe. Besides, they provide more than 80 percent of the food we eat and we use them to make clothes, shelter, medicines, and many other things that are essential to our lives. Moreover, for nearly half of the earth’s population, plants are a primary source of income with almost every country trading in plants and plant products to create wealth and support economic development. A threat to plant health is therefore a threat to the health and prosperity of the people of Africa and the world – especially the most vulnerable.

A sufficient and sustainable food supply is necessary to ensure food security and eliminate hunger, but achieving this has been difficult for many African countries. One threat to food security is transboundary plant pests – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that invasive pests are damaging as much as 40 percent of all food crops globally each year. For instance, Fall Armyworm (FAW) is a plant pest originating in the Americas. Over the last three years (2016 – 2019), the insect has rapidly spread around Africa, the Near East and Asia. Based on 2018 estimates from 12 African countries, up to 17.7 million tonnes of maize could be lost annually to FAW on the continent – enough to feed tens of millions of people. The most direct impact of these losses falls on smallholder maize farmers, most of whom rely on the crop to stave off hunger and poverty. FAW prefers maize but can also feed on more than 80 other crops, including rice, sorghum, millet, sugarcane, vegetable crops and cotton.

Emergency control of transboundary plant pests can cost millions of dollars and often involves the application of pesticides that may have undesirable effects on humans, animals and the environment. For instance, the cost of control operations during the last significant Desert Locust upsurge in 2003-2005 was nearly 600 million dollars, and almost 13 million litres of chemical pesticides were sprayed. The government of Zambia spent USD 3 million in emergency pesticide spray operations to contain FAW while South Africa spent about USD 4 million during the 2016/2017 season. However, African countries cannot sustain such financial subsidies on the protection of maize from FAW especially considering that countries in the region have to also frequently respond to other agricultural and food security shocks associated with droughts, floods, livestock diseases and the impact of turbulences in input and output markets.

According to FAO, trade in agricultural products is worth US$1.1 trillion annually, but pests cause losses of around $220 billion a year. This trade provides job security and stimulates economic growth in the exporting country’s farm sector. However, trade can be limited by unnecessary plant health-related restrictions. Despite declining resources for plant health protection services, international, regional, and national plant health organizations continue in their efforts to protect plant health around the world. One of their primary goals is to prevent the spread of plant pests into new areas where they could cause significant environmental and economic damage. These organizations accomplish this critical goal in many ways, from regulating the global trade of agricultural products to developing innovative, scientific methods for addressing pest threats and promoting responsible practices that reduce pest spread.

The phytosanitary management capacities of national plant protection organizations (NPPOs) in Africa are generally inadequate when compared to the nature of regional threats to plant health. The institutional weaknesses of the NPPOs in developing countries are well recognized and still persist. Good stakeholder relations and effective communication is an important tool for NPPOs to address some of these weaknesses. Awareness of the importance of phytosanitary matters and understanding of the potential implications of non-compliance to domestic production and export potential is of utmost importance amongst public and private stakeholders to enhance compliance and identify areas of potential collaboration to strengthen import and export systems. African countries need to improve not only industry awareness of the importance of phytosanitary matters, but also public stakeholder awareness, including politicians and policy makers, and the general public and consumers.

The weak phytosanitary capacity in the region constitutes a significant limitation to effective transboundary plant pest and disease control. Robust national phytosanitary capacity is needed to support market access for agricultural exports and promote initiatives to enhance intra-regional trade. This calls for national, regional and international collaboration along with concerted community action to tackle the menace of the transboundary plant pests and diseases. National plant protection programs, international development organisations, policy makers and the donor community should strengthen regional cooperation and support a holistic transboundary pest management strategy.

One good example in this respect is the collaboration among the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Union to combat five transboundary plant pests/diseases (Fall Armyworm, tomato leaf miner, fruit fly, banana Fusarium wilt Tropical Race 4, and maize lethal necrosis disease). FAO was selected by the European Union and SADC Secretariat in 2018 to manage the implementation of a 3-yr regional project that, among other things, seeks to improve access to markets through implementation of plant pest and disease control strategies at the regional and national levels.

The EU-funded project will ensure (i) the development of harmonized regional control and management strategies for trans-boundary crop pests and diseases that affect trade in plant products, (ii) coordinated control and management of trans-boundary plant pests and diseases at regional level, (iii) strengthened pest and disease management capacities at regional and national levels for effective surveillance, early warning systems and implementation of control measures; and (iv) promotion of innovative approaches to risk management of trade related diseases are promoted in accordance with international guidelines and standards.

Recognizing the crucial multi-faceted importance of healthy plants, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Resolution A/RES/73/252 (December 2018), proclaiming 2020 the IYPH and called upon FAO, in collaboration with the IPPC, to lead the implementation of the Year (see and The International Year of Plant Health (IYPH) 2020 is essential to raise awareness, drive concrete action and ultimately contribute to a safer, more prosperous and peaceful world.

The overall objective of the IYPH 2020 is to raise the awareness of the public and political decision makers at the global, regional and national levels about plant health’s contribution to achieving the UN sustainable development goals, in particular: ending hunger, reducing poverty, protecting the environment, boosting safe trade and economic development.

Regional Plant Protection Organizations (such as the Inter-African Phytosanitary Council of the African Union) will work closely with NPPOs and take the lead in regional level communications such as implementing public information, communication and educational campaigns – e.g. about the importance of considering risks when carrying plants and plant products across borders.

NPPOs will take the lead in promoting the IYPH 2020 as follows: organize launch events to raise awareness and promote plant health; organize a national plant health day; organize national IYPH conferences and events such as parades, marches, musical shows and fundraising events; organize scientific meetings and congresses; planting trees and caring for them; organize open door days and stands in gardens, nurseries and agricultural schools; invest in plant health education for primary and secondary schools, plant health fellowships, citizen science; set up a national IYPH website; involve national celebrities; produce IYPH banners on metros, buses, taxis, and at airports and seaports; produce IYPH national stamp, coin, pin and jingle in local language; organize monthly campaigns around native plants; promote articles in airline magazines and include texts in tickets about the risks of bringing plants and plant products.

A major weakness in terms of stakeholder relationships is the lack of well-designed and effective public private partnerships (PPPs). These partnerships hold excellent opportunities for creating awareness on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issues, improving phytosanitary compliance and most important, phytosanitary capacity building at the national and regional levels. The IYPH 2020 presents a unique opportunity for NPPOs in Africa to work with academia, research institutions, civil society and private sector to build effective partnerships for the development of strong national plant health systems. A good example is Belgium, whose NPPO has established an ad-hoc inter-ministerial working group to coordinate IYPH 2020 initiatives but also to investigate new and improved collaboration between competent national authorities in plant health at all levels.

Mathew M. Abang (PhD, MBA) is the Plant Production and Protection Officer, Sub-regional Office for Southern Africa – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende