Researchers take stock of promising technologies to tackle emerging pests and diseases of RTB crops

Pests and diseases pose one of the most significant challenges for root, tuber and banana crops and can be particularly devastating for small-scale farmers in developing countries who depend on their produce for food and income.

And with the impact of pests and diseases expected to intensify under climate change, developing and piloting novel approaches for predicting, managing and mitigating their effect is a significant area of research for the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB). The program’s Flagship project 3 on Resilient Crops, which aims to close yield gaps of RTB crops arising from biotic and abiotic threats and to develop more resilient production systems, includes a specialized research cluster on pests and diseases (Cluster 3.1). The cluster aims to mitigate the risks associated with new and emerging pests and diseases under climate change and other drivers of their entry, establishment and spread.

The cluster team met to share research progress, exchange ideas and develop a strategy for moving forward.

Members of this cluster research team from various partner institutions came together in April in York, UK, at the offices of Fera science Ltd for an annual planning meeting to take stock of research progress and develop a plan for the coming year. During the course of the meeting, RTB cluster team participants met with a breadth of Fera specialists in pest and disease diagnosotics, modelling and remote sensing of land and vegetation. Fera is the mainstay of plant health and biosecurity research and evidence to the UK government and also actively partners with many developing country national government plant health bodies and industry.

The meeting provided a valuable opportunity for scientific exchanges, and to highlight opportunities for further developing and promoting the use of new research tools developed under the cluster that can support pest and disease risk planning for potato, sweetpotato, cassava, banana and yam.

Technologies presented during the meeting included the Insect Lifecycle Modeling software (ILCYM), a free software for developing insect phenology models that simulate probablistic population distribution and risk maps under current or future climate change scenarios. This information can help research organizations and national institutions to predict and plan for specific pests and diseases, safeguarding crops.

The state-of-the-art in pest and disease image identification was also presented, with the example of a mobile app that uses artificial intelligence to diagnose crop diseases based on a photo that farmers upload to the system. When the app positively identifies a disease, it can send an SMS alert to thousands of farmers, along with providing the latest management advice and pinpointing the location of the nearest source of agricultural extension support. Currently in use for cassava, and just like the ILCYM software, it will be scaled out by the cluster to provide benefits for other RTB crops.

The mobile app, called ‘Nuru’, can be used by farmers to diagnose crop disease in the field. Photo: IITA

Similarly, the potential for further developing and expanding other technologies was presented, including remote sensing and the use of drones for surveillance and diagnostics, the use of modeling in disease risk management, gender-responsive research, and opportunities in Asia for ‘attract and kill’ technology.

Other key areas for work were also identified including the need for a Pest Risk Assessment for potato cyst nematode (PCN) in countries neighboring Kenya. In a recent survey undertaken in Kenya by the International Institiute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), PCN was found to be widespread in 20 potato-producing counties, including several that border Uganda and Tanzania, with a very high incidence of 82% of fields.

Drones can be used to monitor soil and plant health status. Photo: S.Quinn/CIP

“The pest is mainly transmitted with the exchange of potato seed tubers, tools and equipment that have contaminated soil attached to them. Among others, the informal potato seed trade in these transboundary regions is a risk factor which could have already favored the spread of PCN to Uganda and Tanzania,” says Laura Cortada-Gonzalez, Postdoctoral Fellow, Soil Health, IITA, in explanation of the need for a Pest Risk Assessment.

During the meeting, the team also developed a strategy on how to enhance the involvement of national partners to ensure they feel greater ownership of the technologies being developed the cluster to further support uptake and use of the tools.

Meeting participants included representatives from the International Potato Center (CIP), IITA and Bioversity International, as well as collaborating partners from University of Florida, Penn State University and the meeting host, Fera science Ltd.

Learn more about RTB’s Flagship project 3 on Resilient Crops which is made up of six research clusters.