Pandemic! That word strikes at the heart of global sensitivities right now. But while most people are thinking of the coronavirus disease 2019, a.k.a. COVID-19, this post is focused on something else. In a just-published paper, CGIAR scientists talk about the risks of globalization of pests and pathogens and their impact on food systems.
Imagine if a pandemic or epidemic affects a crop with disastrous consequences on food production, livelihoods, and environmental biodiversity. This scenario is not hypothetical. As was the case in the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, to the most recent examples of severe pandemics of the maize lethal necrosis in East Africa, cassava mosaic in East Asia, fall armyworm in Africa, to list a few examples. These epidemics, caused by introduced pests and pathogens, have devastated crop production, caused food shortages, constrained market access, and destroyed biodiversity, causing severe impact on farmers’ livelihoods and economies.
Plant pathogens and pests that are already established within countries around the world are known to be responsible for about 40% crop yield losses worth about US$ 220 billion globally. The last thing countries expect is an addition of another pathogen or a pest. For instance, the spread of fall armyworm into Africa resulted in additional losses running into millions of dollars due to direct loss of produce and indirectly from expenditure incurred for pest control.
Pests spread through several pathways, some natural and some human-made. Plants and their propagative material, and vegetative propagules, have the inherent ability to harbor pests and disease-carrying organisms. Because of this, transferring germplasm (seed) between geographies carries a simultaneous risk of moving pests across boundaries and their introduction in territories where they are not known to exist.
With the world connected as it is today and 68% of national food supplies derived from crops of foreign origin, the international exchange of genetic resources as botanic seed or vegetative propagules is no longer a ‘frivolous luxury’. These transfers now play a crucial role in agricultural research and food diversification globally. CGIAR flagship initiatives such as “Crops to End Hunger” depend on the international flow of germplasm for timely planting in nurseries for evaluation and seed production.
Without proper phytosanitary controls, germplasm distribution increases the possibility of pest and pathogen dissemination in areas previously considered disease-free. Since Germany first placed plant quarantine measures in 1873 to regulate potato tuber imports from the USA to prevent Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) from spreading, many countries have gone on to establish quarantine and phytosanitary procedures to minimize seed-borne pest spread by screening export and import consignments of germplasm, which eventually led to the establishment of FAO International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), in 1952, as a global authority on international plant quarantine policy and standards for regulatory measures for the protection of plants, animals, and human life.
Unintended pest spread with germplasm is a significant concern for CGIAR genebanks. Breeding programs sent the highest number of germplasm samples reaching about 90 to 100 countries each year. Most of this goes to developing countries and biodiversity hotspots lacking sufficient quarantine capacity to prevent pest entry or respond to pest outbreaks.
Recognizing the pest risks, CGIAR centers have set up Germplasm Health Units (GHUs) to
- avert the spread of quarantine pests with CGIAR germplasm transfers,
- prevent pest outbreaks,
- safeguard biodiversity, and
- strengthen phytosanitary capacity development. The GHUs work closely with national plant protection organizations to ensure centers’ compliance to national and international phytosanitary regulations.
In their just-published paper, CGIAR GHU scientists, including IITA GHU Head and the coordinator of the GHU component of the CGIAR Genebank Platform Lava Kumar, highlight the unique multidisciplinary approach used by GHUs in ensuring phytosanitary protection for the safe conservation and global movement of germplasm from the 11 CGIAR genebanks and breeding programs that acquire and distribute germplasm to and from all parts of the world for agricultural research and food security.
CGIAR genebanks collaborate with the national quarantine systems to export and distribute about 100,000 germplasm samples to partners located in about 90 to 100 countries annually. For over five decades, CGIAR’s breeding and seed system programs have made vital contributions by assembling germplasm from all over the world for conservation, and adding value to those materials through characterization, breeding, and making them available to users across the globe.
The GHUs have a multidisciplinary and multistage process to ensure phytosanitary safety of all bioresources. From germplasm health testing for pests to physical inspection to eliminate infected and damaged plants and seeds, CGIAR maintains the highest safety standards. The GHUs also mitigate pest risk during germplasm regeneration using the optimum procedures, carry out curative phytosanitation (treatment) to eliminate pests, and keep proper documentation for traceability and regulatory compliance.
While national capacities to prevent and manage alien pests is sub-optimal in many developing countries, CGIAR GHU’s efforts in thoroughly testing germplasm accessions for known pests before their release have averted the inadvertent spread of quarantine pests through international transfers in these regions and others.
“One important lesson that we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic is the invaluable value of prevention, which is the mission of GHUs,” said Kumar. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how quickly diseases can spread in the interconnected world of today, and that the sudden spread and disease outbreaks can stifle even well-prepared nations.
The International Year of Plant Health (IYPH) 2020, declared by the United Nations, recognizes the importance of how protecting plant health contribute to UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on ending hunger, reducing poverty, protecting the environment, and boosting economic development. CGIAR GHUs contribute to this mission with their high-level capacity, and global distribution in the developing world as centers of phytosanitary excellence that support national and regional pest surveillance and diagnostics to guard against transboundary pest invasion.
Kumar, P.L., Curevo, M., Kreuze, J.F., Muller, G., Kulkarni, G., Kumari, S.G., Massart, S., Mezzalama, M., Ala-konya, A., Muchugi, A., Graziosi, I., Ndjiondjop, M-N., Sharma, R., Negawo, A.T. 2021. Phyto-sanitary Interventions for Safe Global Germplasm Exchange and Prevention of Transboundary Pest Spread: The Role of CGIAR Germplasm Health Units. Plants 10 (2), 328.
Free download at this link: https://www.mdpi.com/2223-7747/10/2/328
For more information about this work, contact Lava Kumar (L.firstname.lastname@example.org)