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'Trading up' through plant health

Scientists discuss various plant diseases with local farmers at a plant clinic in Pondicherry, India (© CABI)
Scientists discuss various plant diseases with local farmers at a plant clinic in Pondicherry, India

2014 is the International Year of Family Farming - a time to consider the importance of family-run smallholdings and look at what can be done to help farmers improve their livelihoods. However, when considering what support to offer, plant health is often overlooked, which is surprising, as an estimated 40 per cent of food produced worldwide is lost to pests and diseases. Smallholders are particularly vulnerable, having little money for costly inputs such as pesticides. Even pruning back affected parts can reduce incomes, as it takes time for re-growth.

This raises the question of how we deliver the knowledge that farmers need to protect their crops. One solution has been to develop better systems for plant health advice, monitoring and detection. With this in mind, CABI established Plantwise in 2011, and now has rural plant clinics in over 30 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. With its 'knowledge bank' database of plant pests and diseases, and plant doctors trained to diagnose and report crop disease, this programme helps smallholder farmers grow more and lose less. But plant health and other aspects of food security must be placed in the wider context of opening up international trade opportunities to smallholder farmers if small-scale farming is to deliver sustainable income generation.

One outcome of improving farmers' understanding of plant health issues and helping to improve productivity (as Plantwise does) is that surpluses are produced, which can then be sold. Depending on circumstances and crop, sales may take place at local, national, regional or international markets. However, for international markets, production and processing has to comply with agreed standards (often legislative standards of the importing market) and consumer expectations are also key to the successful marketing of fresh and processed food.

Skills academy

The improvement of coffee is one commodity the Academy is focusing on (© CABI)
The improvement of coffee is one commodity the Academy is focusing on

To help improve production, CABI has partnered with Campden BRI to create the Food Supply Chain Academy (FSCA). Rather than a physical institution, the Academy is a training programme, which will focus on enhanced primary production and processing of fresh (fruit and vegetables) and durable produce (cereals, cocoa and coffee). The FSCA will initially focus on South East Asia, including China, a rapidly growing market where consumers are demanding higher standards of production, compliance and internationally recognised standards and systems.

The FSCA, which will be launched in March 2014, will use a 'training of trainers' approach. This will be an ongoing process of continuous improvement to measure results and outcomes, for example in improved skills, productivity and reduction in waste and inputs. Training modules are expected to last 7-10 days, but ongoing training will be provided. The 'master trainers' developed will be able to transfer knowledge required for good practice, either within their own organisation or to a wider audience. The benefit to smallholder farmers comes from working with these master trainers, be they extension workers or outgrower coordinators in commercial farms. Crop protection forms a core part of the training but is placed in the context of a broader curriculum designed to help smallholders participate in international trade. The training will also be tailored and targeted towards particular supply chains, such as cocoa or coffee, in order to obtain a more reliable, sustainable and cost effective source of quality produce.

Strengthening supply chains

CABI hopes to concentrate more of its efforts on trade (© CABI)
CABI hopes to concentrate more of its efforts on trade

As well as working with Campden BRI, CABI is in discussions with a number of companies principally in the horticulture and fresh produce sector. CABI is also developing partnerships with governments, extension services and NGOs to develop and support the initiative. The intention is to build on the core training to develop wider support mechanisms and information dissemination, including mobile phone-based information delivery, in order to share information on good practice throughout the supply chain. "The key to helping companies meet customers' expectations for quality and safety," says Philippa David, responsible for food supply chain development at CABI, "is to work more closely with their suppliers and help them to understand their customers' requirements by developing more efficient and transparent supply chains. The FSCA is designed to focus on a number of specific challenges to achieve this, including the delivery of consistent quality and safety at the right cost."

Looking to the future, CABI hopes to concentrate more of its efforts on trade by developing better access for emerging markets through the improvement of plant health, agricultural practice and compliance with international standards. Increased trade promotes economic prosperity and national wealth and encourages individuals to be actively involved in their own future, rather than depend on aid. Planet, people and profit are the three pillars of sustainability and whilst many think of sustainability as being primarily an environmental issue, economic sustainability is also central, not least to resource poor farmers. Educating these farmers about good agricultural practice, including plant health, as it relates to trade enables them to grow more and earn more, thereby improving their livelihoods. In this way, they can take steps towards self-sufficiency and truly sustainable family farming.

Written by: Dr Julie Flood, Global Director, Commodities, CABI

Date published: January 2014


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