Plant health has an impact over household and national food security, nutrition and income. The Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development recently launched the Zimbabwe Plant Health Awareness Programme to intensify the battle against pests and to strengthen and improve management of the environment within which plants grow. To intensify the battle against pests, the United Nations proclaimed 2020 the International Year of Plant Health(IYPH2020).
Our Senior Agriculture Reporter Elita Chikwati (EC) talks to the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development, Department of Research and Specialist Services, Principal Director, Mrs Danisile Hikwa on the importance of adhering to correct agronomic practices and ensure good plant health.
EC: What is the DRSS and what is its role in agriculture?
DH: The Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS) is one of the departments in the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development. The DR&SS hosts the National Plant Protection Organization (NPPO) of Zimbabwe. The designation NPPO, is in accordance with the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), to which the Government of Zimbabwe has been a contracting party, through the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development, since 2012.
The NPPO's mandate is to co-ordinate the national plant health programme in the country.
EC: What is plant health and plant health management?
DH: Plant health is concerned with ecosystem management with special emphasis on plants. Therefore, plant health management entails the practice of understanding and eliminating or minimising biotic (living organisms) and abiotic factors that limit plants from achieving their full productivity potential.
Biotic factors that affect plant health include both emerging and old pests, which attack plants. In Southern Africa we have encountered some emerging pests such as the fall armyworm, tomato leaf miner and the cotton mealy bug among others.
We also need strengthen surveillance and to be on the lookout for those diseases that are not in Zimbabwe, but were recently reported in other countries in Southern Africa. Such diseases include Panama Disease in banana and the Banana Bunchy Top Virus, as well as Maize Lethal Necrosis. Abiotic factors include temperature, relative humidity, water, nutrients and physiological disorders.
EC: Why is the focus on plant health important to farmers and Zimbabwe as a country?
DH: The success or failure of agricultural production has a strong bearing on food security, nutrition and trade in agricultural products, not only for farmers, but for the nation as a whole. In recognition of this fact, Government of Zimbabwe included the Food and Nutrition Cluster as one of the four clusters in the national blue print - the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Economic Transformation (Zim-ASSET).
Increasing agricultural productivity through improved protection of plants against insect pests and diseases, will have a positive impact on food security, nutrition and incomes.
Productivity of crops grown for human and livestock consumption is increasingly at risk due to increased incidences of insect pests, weeds and disease causing organisms.
Crop losses to pests such as Fall Armyworm and Tomato Leaf Miner attack can be as high as 50-100 percent. If not well managed, these pests can potentially threaten livelihoods and trade. Globally, this growing threat to humanity has increased the realisation for the need to focus on plant health.
EC: The Plant Health Management Awareness Programme when the country is celebrating the 2016 /17 bumper harvest. What is the importance of this?
DH: In spite of the achievements registered during 2016/2017 summer season, the country faced outbreaks of new and old crop pests that threatened agricultural production, food security and nutrition. These emerging crop pests included fall armyworm, tomato leaf miner, and cotton mealy bug. If the emerging pests are not properly managed, crop losses can be as high as 100 percent. There it is important that the country pays attention to plant health.
EC: Do plants fall sick?
DH: Yes, just like humans, plants do fall sick. A plant is said to be sick when it fails to carry out its full physiological functions for survival and reproduction. It shows signs and symptoms of sickness in a variety of ways. Humans and animals do have clinics and in the same manner, plants do have clinics that resolve plant health issues for growers.
Farmers do bring their distressed plants, and planting medium (soil) to any of the recognised plant clinics, including those situated in the Ministry's DR&SS.
EC: Why are you focusing on plant health now?
DH: Issues of plant health have always been important. The growing threat of new pests and diseases spreading or becoming more damaging to plants, especially with increased movement of plant products through trade, poses high risks to crops and plants in the environment.
Therefore, it is imperative to increase awareness to the public and to farmers on plant health issues, to avoid reduction in crop yields and quality of plant products. Awareness allows early detection and notification of pests and this minimises outbreaks.
EC: What are the current global activities concerning plant health?
DH: The global recognition of issues of plant health resulted in the IPPC declaring the year 2020 as an International Year of Plant Health (IYPH2020). The build up to IYPH2020 is meant for various contracting parties to increase public and political awareness on plant health issues, including an increased reflection on plant health concepts in national academic curricula.
EC: How do farmers ensure plants are healthy?
DH: Farmers can ensure plant health through:
- Use of certified seed and disease resistant varieties
- Fertile soil with adequate water and nutrient supply and free from pests. Support institutions are there to assist farmers with various analyses of samples.
- Informed scouting for plant pests, weeds and diseases
- Practicing good agricultural management practices
- Correct use of registered pesticides from registered companies
- Farmers are encouraged to continuously work closely with extension service providers to get support and links to other technical service institutions.
EC: How do soils, weeds and seed affect plant health?
DH: Weeds compete with plants for space, light, nutrients and moisture, reducing plant productivity and resultant quality of products. Soil harbours plant pests and acts as a weed seed bank.
Under favourable conditions, weed seeds germinate, emerge and compete with target plants. Some weeds such as witch weed are parasitic and they attach their roots on host plants to siphon nutrients from the host. For example, witch weed produces between 90 000 and 500 000 seeds per plant. These various pressures result in sick or weak plants.
EC: What is the impact of plant health on marketing and trade in agricultural commodities?
DH: The Plant Health Awareness Programme aims at enhancing production of quality plant products that are free from insect pests, noxious weeds, diseases, pesticide residues and heavy metals. This ensures that our products gain access to regional and international markets, which have stringent Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS). SPS measures are put in place to ensure safe trade of agricultural products and prevent spread of weeds, pests and diseases from one country to another through trade and movement of people.
EC: What are the current global activities concerning plant health and what does year 2020 mean in terms of plant health?
DH: As has been alluded to, year 2020 is the International Year of Plant Health. The global activities are geared towards raising awareness of the importance and impacts of plant health in addressing issues of global importance, including hunger, poverty, threats to the environment and economic development.
EC: What is your advice to the farming communities and stakeholders with regards to plant health issues?
DH: Plant health management at farmer level is critical. This aspiration can only be achieved if farmers are ready to walk together with support institutions to ensure key facets which guarantee that plants are free from threatening emerging and old pests and diseases.
The encouragement goes to all stakeholders to join hands and work together to uplift the benefit at farm level and throughout the value chain. Farmers are encouraged to visit service providers such as AGRITEX for extension advisory and to seek analytical services from institutions such as DR&SS for identification of problematic pests and diseases. Collectively we say "A Healthy Plant for a Healthy Nation".
EC: Thank You.
DH: My pleasure.