Healthy crops are key to solving Africa’s food insecurity

By Dr. Dennis Rangi, Director General, Development, CABI

CABI’s Dr. Dennis Rangi, based in Nairobi, asks how we can apply the determination and urgency shown to the COVID-19 pandemic to plant pandemics on the African continent in order to help food security.

Dr Dennis Rangi. Credit: CABI

During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across Africa showed great determination and urgency in tackling the disease. With World Food Day recently, can we address other deadly threats – like hunger and poverty – using the same level of resolution and speed shown during the pandemic?

Not only did the pandemic bring dramatic disruptions to food supply chains, which many of us experienced first-hand, but it also brought to the fore the importance of access to good nutrition for human health and resilience to illness.

Critically, it also gave us valuable lessons that we can apply to crop and plant pandemics – challenges that threaten food security now and in future.

Plant pandemics are one of the biggest challenges to food security on the African continent and have been for centuries. Blight, disease and locusts have decimated crops affecting millions of people who have suffered and will continue to suffer if we do not take concerted action. Invasive species are a significant cause of plant pandemics. Take fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), for example, which has caused the highest annual yield losses in Africa at US$9.4 billion.

Fall armyworm attaching maize crop. Credit: CABI.

CABI research published this year shows that invasive species cost Africa’s agricultural sector an estimated US$65.58 billion a year. This sum represents a tremendous loss where over 80% of people living in rural areas rely on the crops they grow for food and income.

The Strategy for Managing Invasive Species in Africa 2021-2030 provides a framework for us to eradicate and prevent invasives sustainably. If we apply the kind of determination and urgency shown during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can speed up the implementation of the strategy.

The African Union (AU) has had previous experience of managing serious health crises such as Ebola. The lessons the AU has learned from managing the spread of human viruses can be applied to plants pests and diseases, from building strong collaborations and partnerships to fostering communications and public relations.

Rapid reaction is essential during human or plant health crises. The early detection of fall armyworm, for example, has helped governments address its spread. To minimize or eliminate the negative impact of invasive species on ecosystems and safeguard food security, we must establish rapid and tight controls.

A critical institution that can help us achieve the invasives strategy and resolve the problem of plant pandemics is the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA). Although young – it started trading in 2021 – it could address one of the most critical elements in invasive species management: plant biosecurity. AfCTA promotes the free movement of goods and people, but we must look at ways to move from the concept of free movement to a safe and secure reality.

AfCTA can also play a valuable role in implementing effective and safe policies around the movement of horticultural goods, one of the pathways through which humans spread invasives species.

Now is the time to address plant pandemics with the same commitment and vigour, so that we can make hunger and poverty a thing of the past. In November 2021, CABI will hold a high-level discussion on how to attain food security, strengthen resilience and improve preparedness to future shocks in the Global South. We must be ready for the next pandemic.

This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for December is ‘Farming in a post-COVID world’.

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.


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