By Dr. Dennis Rangi

Dr. Dennis Rangi, Director General, Development, CABI Photo credits: CABI

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that when we come together on a global or regional level, we can quickly address the biggest threats to society. During the pandemic, governments across Africa showed great determination and urgency in tackling COVID-19. On World Food Day, can we address other deadly threats – like hunger and poverty – using the same level of resolution and speed shown during the pandemic?

COVID-19 and food security are already closely intertwined. Not only did the pandemic bring dramatic disruptions to food supply chains, which many of us experienced first-hand, but it also brought to the fore the importance of access to good nutrition for human health and resilience to illness.

Critically, it also gave us valuable lessons that we can apply to crop and plant pandemics – challenges that threaten food security now and in future.

Plant pandemics are one of the biggest challenges to food security on the African continent and have been for centuries. Blight, disease and locusts have decimated crops affecting millions of people who have suffered and will continue to suffer if we do not take concerted action. Invasive species – that is to say, diseases, insects and plants brought into a region with none of their natural enemies to control them – are a significant cause of plant pandemics. Take fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), for example, which has caused the highest annual yield losses in Africa at US$9.4 billion.

Fall armyworm attacking maize crop

The Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) research published this year shows that invasive species cost Africa’s agricultural sector an estimated US$65.58 billion a year. This sum represents a tremendous loss where over 80% of people living in rural areas rely on the crops they grow for food and income. COVID-19 exacerbates the long-term effects and continues to apply intense pressure on an already fragile agricultural sector and food supply chain.

The Strategy for Managing Invasive Species in Africa 2021-2030 provides a framework for us to eradicate and prevent invasives sustainably. If we apply the kind of determination and urgency shown during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can speed up the implementation of the strategy. Can we employ the lessons learned over the past 20 months to plant pandemics and finally make hunger and malnutrition a thing of the past on the African continent?

We know we have the potential. Many news outlets, for example, commended Africa’s leaders on the way in which they addressed the COVID-19 pandemic. Reactions were swift. The Financial Times reported that “although Europe had barely woken up to the threat of COVID-19, Africa was on high alert” and that John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), understood that “early intervention would be vital.”

The African Union (AU) has had previous experience of managing serious health crises such as Ebola. The AU’s response to Ebola was no different to COVID-19 and although not global (and no vaccines were developed), biosecurity and quarantine effectively contained the pandemic. The lessons the AU has learned from managing the spread of human viruses can be applied to plants pests and diseases, from building strong collaborations and partnerships to fostering communications and public relations. Rapid reaction is essential during human or plant health crises. The early detection of fall armyworm, for example, has helped governments address its spread. To minimize or eliminate the negative impact of invasive species on ecosystems and safeguard food security, we must establish rapid and tight controls.

Adequate funding is also essential. In July 2020, the African Development Bank approved grants of $27.4 million to increase the African Union’s efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic on a continental level. This cash injection strengthened Africa’s CDC, continental response plans and surveillance into African countries. Learning from this, establishing continental, regional and national level emergency funding mechanisms to facilitate rapid action against invasives will be vital.

Longer-term research funding can also help identify effective biological or natural methods for invasive species management. Fostering research for development (R4D) focusing on preparedness, predictive modelling, forecasting, monitoring and surveillance, data handling, and governance structure and institutional arrangements is critical.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, African leaders quickly came together. As early as February 2020, all 55 national health ministers united from across the continent to agree on a strategy. During a pandemic, government and policy-level coordination can be the difference between failure and success. For this reason, we must strengthen the coordination of invasive species regulatory systems and enabling policies.

A critical institution that can help us achieve the invasives strategy and resolve the problem of plant pandemics is the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA). Although young – it started trading in 2021 – it could address one of the most critical elements in invasive species management: plant biosecurity. AfCTA promotes the free movement of goods and people, but we must look at ways to move from the concept of free movement to a safe and secure reality.

In the context of trade, as well as the environment, invasive species pose a considerable threat. They not only affect horticultural trade – a valuable source of income on which many African countries heavily rely – but are also among the greatest threats to biodiversity. AfCTA can play a valuable role in implementing effective and safe policies around the movement of horticultural goods, one of the pathways through which humans spread invasives species.

Again, trade and value chain projects can help. The Australia-Africa plant biosecurity partnership, for example, helped to strengthen the plant biosecurity skills of plant health professionals in Africa based on the experiences of Australian experts leading to positive outcomes in countries like Tanzania.

Finally, we must embrace communication technologies. During the pandemic, we applied digital tools to continue to connect with each other, moving from office-based to home-based working, for example. The African continent is vast, but during the pandemic we were able to connect, working with farmers remotely through ‘online’ agricultural extension. The CABI-led PlantwisePlus programme also shows us how plant pandemics can be fought effectively by empowering smallholders on the ground with digitally delivered agricultural knowledge.

The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing unprecedented challenges to human health, food and nutrition security and farmer incomes across the continent, but Africa is rising to the challenge. Now it is time to address plant pandemics with the same commitment and vigour, so that we can make hunger and poverty a thing of the past. Looking to the future, in November 2021, CABI will hold a high-level discussion on how to attain food security, strengthen resilience and improve preparedness to future shocks in the Global South. We must be ready for the next pandemic.

The writer is the Director General, Development, CABI