Aftermath Of Climate Change, Plants Health Under Threat

Plant health is increasingly under threat. Climate change and human activities have altered ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and creating new niches where pests can thrive.

The United Nations in December 2018, declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH).

The year is a once in a lifetime opportunity to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.

Plants are the source of the air we breathe and 80% of the food we eat. Healthy plants mean healthy human lives.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) is a major player in the plant health research and delivery arena and is supporting IYPH 2020.

At the same time, international travel and trade has tripled in volume in the last decade and can quickly spread pests and diseases around the world causing great damage to native plants and the environment.

IITA plant health scientist, James Legg, was a recent guest on Plantopia, a podcast series to mark the International Year of Plant Health, and interviewed by Cornell University’s David Gadoury.

Legg talked about a powerful tool that is putting information in farmers’ hands.

This tool is an app, PlantVillage,  which was developed in partnership with Penn State University and a private tech developer in India. “Nuru is like putting an extension officer in the hands of a farmer”, Legg said during the show.

James Legg is a plant virologist with more than 20 years experience of working on plant viruses and their insect vectors. James graduated in Pure and Applied Biology from St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, before completing M.Sc. and PhD studies at the University of Reading.

James’ Ph.D. research examined the role of the whitefly, Bemisia tabaci in vectoring cassava mosaic geminiviruses in East Africa. Most of his professional career has focused on strengthening understanding of cassava viruses, and using that improved understanding to develop and facilitate the promotion of control strategies.

An extensive research portfolio has been developed covering aspects, such as, detection and molecular characterisation of cassava viruses; field epidemiology; virus-vector interactions; development and deployment of host plant resistance; field surveillance strategies; vector molecular characterization, vector population dynamics/bionomics; vector-natural enemy interactions, biological control; and cultural approaches for the management of both viruses and their vectors.

James has published widely in peer-reviewed journals and has also contributed extensively to the development of training materials in various media formats, including video. He has worked closely with a wide range of national and regional research institutions, as well as donor organizations, in developing research for development programs in sub-Saharan Africa.

The most recent experience has been with USAID-funded programs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Great Lakes Cassava Initiative (GLCI).

This app has many advantages. Anyone with a smartphone can use it. All they need to do is to download it from Play Store and then follow the instructions for its use. What makes it a game-changer is not only its ability to diagnose plant pests and diseases but the fact that it works offline.

This functionality is vital because most farmers in Africa live in remote rural areas with limited or no connectivity and access to data or extension officers.

Just like with COVID-19, testing is important in the detection of plant diseases as well. Nuru is an example of how artificial intelligence can be used to test and recognize symptoms of pest and disease damage in plants.

On the show, Legg explains how artificial intelligence works: “We recorded images of thousands of damaged cassava leaves showing symptoms of a mosaic disease, brown streak, and green mite, as well healthy, undamaged leaves.

A team from Penn State University ‘trained’ computers through machine learning to recognize the characteristics of these diseases.

Armed with this information, a private company from India hired by Penn State developed the app.” All a farmer needs to do is download the app, which requires access to the Internet, but after that, it can be used offline.

This app is not only a game-changer, but it is also affordable and efficient. To learn more about artificial intelligence and the importance and origins of cassava in Africa listen to the entire interview. Hint; cassava was introduced to Africa from Latin America in the 16th century.

The IYPH thus emphasizes protection and prevention. Everyone has a role in doing this!

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