We Have Organic Technology for Potato Pest, Says IITA

An organic technology developed from banana plant waste material may be the ultimate rescue for potato cyst nematode (PCN) pest.

This is coming as potato production in East Africa is under increasing threat from the invasive and highly destructive potato cyst nematode (PCN) pest.

Known as “wrap and plant”, the solution involves enclosing potato seed in a thick absorbent paper made from the fiber of banana plants before planting.

This strategy provides a protective barrier for the plants against damage by PCN.

These research findings led by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), and North Carolina State University, USA, working with various partners, have been published recently in Nature Sustainability).

“Initially, we aimed to understand whether the “wrap and plant” technology could improve the delivery and effectiveness of nematicides, the chemical agents used to control parasitic worms that damage crops, such as nematodes’’, notes Juliet Ochola (Kenya).

She was involved in the research as part of her MSc studies that she completed at Kenyatta University, Kenya, in 2021, co-supervised by icipe and IITA.

Adding, she said, “we established that when loaded with ultra-low dosages of nematicides, the banana paper enables the chemicals to be released in a slow and sustained manner and in very low but effective concentrations.

‘’The paper also facilitates the nematicides to be conveyed specifically to the root zone of the potato plants; the infection site of the nematodes, thus preventing contamination to non-target areas and organisms.”

As Prof. Baldwyn Torto, Head, Behavioural and Chemical Ecology Unit, icipe, explains, the most significant discovery of this study was that, even without the nematicides, the “wrap and plant” technology protects potato from PCN damage.

“We established that the banana-fiber has unique sponge-like properties. Thus, through a process known scientifically as ‘hydrogen bonding’, the ‘wrap and plant’ paper can soak and physically bind the critical chemical signals released by potato crops that allow the PCN to hatch, find, and infect the plant’s roots. We confirmed this to be the case, as we recovered these chemicals from the paper,” he states.

The banana-fiber characteristics make the “wrap and plant” paper dense, rigid, and sturdy, such that it remains intact in the soil while also allowing the plant’s roots to germinate and thrive. Although the paper is durable, it is also biodegradable and eventually decomposes.

First detected in Kenya in 2015, the PCN pest has now widely spread across major potato growing regions and in Rwanda and Uganda.

“Our estimates show that PCNs are causing potato production declines of more than 60 percent, with projections indicating an even worse scenario,” notes Prof. Coyne, IITA Soil Health Scientist.

“The current study demonstrates that the ‘wrap and plant’ paper, whether containing nematicides or not, and depending on the practices of individual farmers, can increase potato yield by up to five times. This is by preventing the damage by PCNs and other nematode species.”

The “wrap and plant” technology is a promising boost for food and nutrition security and household incomes, as it will help safeguard the production of potato, East Africa’s second most important staple crop. It also contributes to the vision of a circular economy by transforming banana-fiber, often regarded as agricultural waste and a nuisance for farmers, into raw material for a pest control innovation. This could create opportunities for entrepreneurs and farmers.

Besides reducing overuse or misuse of chemical pesticides, the “wrap and plant” technology supports environmental protection by curtailing the growing trend where farmers are compelled to clear forests unsustainably to create productive fields free of PCNs and other pests.

Overall, this breakthrough in PCN control demonstrates an environmentally-friendly way to counter disruptions in sustainable food systems.

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