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Pests Pest Techniques Expertise

Shortage of Plant Pathologists

November 2012. An articles in made the case that there are insufficient plant pathologists in the UK. The job losses and the lack of graduates from universities means that there is not the expertise to identify and control plant diseases in farms and woodlands. The appearance of the ash dieback in British woodlands should be a wake-up call.

A member from a university in the UK sent the following:

This decline is driven by university departments having to follow
performance indicators=research income and high impact (by that they
mean Nature, Science, PNAS, etc.) publications. This creates a rather
artificial situation as organismal-related research, as mentioned
above, does not attract the big grants. So recruitment tends now to be
of people with “big ideas” in the context of current biology. Some
work is exciting, but I’ll leave you to take on board my implied
frustration and cynicism.

The better news is that “research impact” is now a key part of how we
are judged (and that drives government funding to departments). Impact
means true impact, not income or journal papers, but what difference
has it actually made. My current work on diseases
of oil palm in Africa and SE Asia is being used here as a model
example, yet this work does not get major funding or hit major
journals (eg Plant Pathology is an ideal journal for this research but
is not taken seriously by those that judge) so people like me will not
be replaced. Getting usable impact examples from colleagues working in
more esoteric/academic areas is proving very difficult indeed.

In Brazil (parts at least) they are more
at one with agriculture. I interact with a close contact of mine in
Minas Gerais State at the University of Lavras and am amazed at the
number of students taking Masters (and some PhDs) in plant pathology.
I’m not saying it’s well funded, but it happens. Does
that convert to jobs? I don’t know.

Maybe the various tree diseases arriving at an unprecedented rate in
UK will bring about a change in government policy and influence university
appointments. It’s almost unique to see a plant disease getting double
page spreads in the serious newspapers and being the second item on
the TV news.

There were comments from the Pacific region which suggested that a similar situation existed there. Here are some of them:

Three contributions from former plant protection staff of SPC, Secretariat of the Pacific Community.

1. Former Plant Health Officer. Certainly there are more entomologists compared to plant pathologists in Pacific island countries, although there are few of either; the ratio is about 4 to 1. There are reasons for this:

  • It is generally more expensive to run a mycology/plant pathology lab in terms of cost of culturing organisms, etc., and to work with viruses, even more so, as these days it nearly always requires molecular techniques to do identifications. So cash-challenged governments are much less interested in funding plant pathology and will only respond when situation becomes critical (e.g. Taro leaf blight crisis in Samoa).
  • Insects you can generally see with the naked eye and so when growers are worried about something and demand action, it is usually what they can see first that they want “fixed” even if an unseen root pathogen is at the heart of the biggest issue of their crop.

It is often easier to get funding for, say, fruit fly work than for yam anthracnose. Possibly, if one did the calculation, the losses due to various pathogens on root crops were just as large as the losses due to some of the fruit fly in Pacific region which readily receive funding. The reason may be a) fruit flies can impede trade and trade has become an important criterion for funding decisions, and b) a lack of plant pathologists means that economic loss due to diseases of yams can’t be made.

2. Former Plant Health Officer. The situation in the Pacific islands is not ideal: few countries have staff in all plant protection disciplines, and many have none at all. Regrettably, this has been the situation for many years. For instance, in 1991, Bob Fullerton, Plant & Food Research, New Zealand, said the following in a keynote address at a regional seminar on Pacific Plant Pathologists in the 1990s:

In recent years, as countries have attained self-government, support for expatriate plant pathologists has declined. They have not however been replaced by well-trained national staff. This means the region is still almost totally dependent on outside resources for specialist skills. [Source: SPC Meeting Report 1996]

SPC, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, with great credit, has tried to fill the gap, and has equipped the Land Resources Division with expertise in entomology, plant pathology, including virology, and nematology. As admirable as this might seem, it is still only a single expert in each discipline covering 22 countries and territories.

However, for a regional unit to work, it depends on in-country support, and here we return to the Bob Fullerton’s point made in 1991, that is, the lack of national counterpart staff.

One may well ask: Does this situation matter? The answer is: Yes, it does. It matters for a variety of reasons, for example: monitoring of pests and diseases is not done properly; quarantine departments do not have access to appropriate advice and identification services; new pests arrive and go unrecognised and/or untreated; and farmers cannot obtain advice as and when needed and consequently either use inappropriate pest management or none at all.

So, to quote Bob Fullerton again:

This is a disturbing situation. Agriculture and tourism are the basis of most national development plans. With a movement from subsistence farming to more intensive land use, growing cash crops such as coffee, citrus, papaya, squash and vegetables, a new range of disease problems will emerge.

Given the current global economic situation, and an environment where Pacific island countries are likely to be hard-pressed to allocate more resources to plant protection, are there feasible solutions to ensuring that plant protection expertise is available as and when required?

One option is for donors to increase funding to SPC to increase the expertise available in the Land Resources Division. For some donor countries, it would be a way of protecting their borders, as well as assisting Pacific island countries. In addition, some funding for PestNet would ensure plant protection and quarantine advice continues to be freely and rapidly available from a large group of experts, particularly as it is an unfunded resource to the Pacific and beyond.

Another option is for those Pacific island countries that are able to do so to make available their expertise to those that need to supplement their capacity. For example, a few years ago, Papua New Guinea offered the services of the National Agricultural Research Institute to assist the region to tackle common problems. While this service did not eventuate, as intended, recent sub-regional donor-funded projects led by PNG show that expertise can be shared across agricultural disciplines and this approach could well be expanded to include plant protection.

There is a history of collaboration among Pacific island countries, and in agriculture in particular, which has strengthened over the decades. For example, one has only to think of the germplasm exchanges that occur via the SPC’s CePACT – Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees – to recognise the collaborative efforts that have gone into overcoming pest and disease problems in Pacific island countries for many years.

3. Former Team Leader, Plant Protection.

  • To my mind this trend in the Pacific goes back at least 15 years when the SPC Plant Protection Service grew from a small team of 2-3 specialists to a large team which took over increasing functions of national governments. The larger governments were only too happy to pass the responsibility on to SPC so they didn’t have to fund these essential services themselves.
  • The ratio of plant protection staff to others in agriculture has always been low, and lower for plant pathologists than entomologists. So perhaps the reality is that nothing has changed except that world over fewer and fewer school leavers are choosing agriculture, plant pathology and entomology included.
  • So how can the situation be improved? A concerted region-wide campaign is needed, perhaps led by SPC, drawing attention to the economic consequences of pests and disease outbreaks, that it is now time for SPC plant protection division to downsize and for the larger Pacific countries to train their own staff.

A comment was also made on the way that countries prioritize plant protection against other issues concerning the environment.

In response to the “should it be fruit flies or yam anthracnose” conundrum, a member from Fiji pointed out that fruit flies were found in many traded commodities, and that their potential to dislocate trade was high. Governments, not unreasonably, are attracted to promoting export industries as a means of obtaining revenue to maintain bureaucracies and much else. Costs of establishing fruit fly treatments and maintaining them at the standard agreed, often formally documented in bilateral agreements, demand technical persons to monitor them, hence the need for entomologists. Some yams are exported from the Pacific to Pacific rim counties, but the volume is not great, and the quarantine treatments much less demanding compared to those for hosts of fruit fly. Certainly, the volumes are less than those of papaya, eggplant, lady finger, breadfruit, etc.