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Plant power – building resources in developing countries

Rice field

Enabling developing countries to do their own research with local impact is vital in the sustainable support of global plant health. But how does it work in action and what are the real stories behind it?

This is a story of building capacity and strength. To improve plant health, we support the researchers who are addressing the challenges faced by farmers and crop growers in developing countries. This enables them to keep their communities growing and supports their work on important global issues. Not only is plant health a community pillar, bolstering local economies and enhancing worldwide food supply, but it also fosters a sharing of expertise, learning from each other, enabling growth – and all this helps the UK-research base, too.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) send out UK researchers to share expertise with developing country researchers in the field. It’s vital work. The UK government is committed to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on official development assistance (ODA). Part of this is through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund, both managed by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), with UKRI the lead delivery partner for both funds – and the programmes around plant health are already having a positive impact on the livelihoods and real-life stories of our global communities.

Plant disease diagnosis system helps protect sub-Saharan Africa’s wheat production

In Ethiopia, due to variable temperatures from climate change, the wheat fungal pathogen yellow rust causes yield losses of up to 70% – and its effects can devastate communities.

“Imagine you are a farmer in a developing nation, and you suspect your crops have fallen victim to one of the many diseases affecting modern agriculture. Identifying what exactly has infected your field and which strain it might be can take many months, often by which time it is too late.”

This is Dr Diane Saunders. An award-winning scientist, Dr Saunders, along with Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)-funded researchers at the John Innes Centre, have created an advanced plant disease diagnosis system to help protect Ethiopia’s wheat crops from wheat yellow rust fungus.

Called MARPLE (Mobile and Real-time PLant disEase), the portable device detects which strain of the pathogen is infecting a wheat crop, in just two days, so farmers can make fast decisions to control the disease and protect harvests. Farmers detecting pathogens in their crops within two days, rather than months, means MARPLE is game-changing for livelihoods.

“Due to wheat rust, farmers lose a major part of their productivity every year,’ says Dr Tadessa Daba, Director of Agricultural Biotechnology Research, EIAR, who is working with the UK research team. “We want to see this project on the ground bringing impact, to show farmers and the nation this technology works.”

And working it is. Ethiopia is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest wheat producer and is considered a gateway for new rust pathogen strains entering from Asia, and now MARPLE is being rolled out across five research hubs in major wheat-growing areas across the country, protecting plants.

Building a global community knowledge exchange around seaweed health

“Currently, there is a big problem of seaweed diseases that affect seaweed and farmers in general, both economically and morally.” This is Dr Flower Msuya. The Developing Country Leader for Tanzania, Dr Msuya works with Professor Elizabeth Cottier-Cook and Senior Project Manager, Dr Valeria Montalescot on the GCRF Global SeaweedSTAR programme. This is a four-year programme growing the research and innovation capacity and capability of developing countries engaged in seaweed farming, primarily with the Philippines, Malaysia and Tanzania, and as with wheat in sub-Saharan Africa, seaweed health is vital in building the capacity of communities.

“We want to train people from seaweed-producing developing nations in how to identify disease, support their efforts in breeding better crops and help shape national and international legislations to improve biosecurity,” says Professor Cottier-Cook, with the Global Seaweed programme also creating the ‘My Seaweed Looks Weird’ project, enabling farmers to get support if they suspect their crop is diseased. “In turn,” she says, “we hope that the exchange of information and sharing of best practices on breeding and cultivation techniques will benefit a truly global industry.”

As with MARPLE, the seaweed programme is about impact and expertise, with the Scottish seaweed industry learning from the global community knowledge exchange created by the programme. Dr Valeria Montalescot says: “The seaweed cultivation is in its infancy in Europe and the UK, while it has been ongoing for the last 30-40 years in Asia. We have a lot to learn from our Asian counterparts, and to jointly address the above-mentioned challenges to create a sustainable industry in the UK.”

Invested in sharing and using expertise across continents to protect plant health now and in the future

Wheat, seaweed, aubergines and coconuts are just some of the crops and plants that researchers are protecting through collaboration.

Such as the portable battery-powered devices that can detect the presence of the yellowing disease in coconuts within 30 minutes, enabling disease detection in remote locations, all created in a joint Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)-Department for International Development (DFID) project at the University of Nottingham in the UK and the CSIR Oil Palm Research Institute in Ghana.

And there’s Dr Ruth Minja, a research officer at the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania, working with Professor Gerard Bishop of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in a collaboration with scientists in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. They’re developing a project which seeks to improve the resilience of the African aubergine to climate change, as well as improving soil health for successful aubergine cultivation.

All these projects map a story of sharing, of using expertise across the continents to protect plant health now and in the future. And what’s crucial is that this isn’t a story that ends when the page is turned – it’s one that endures and makes an impact in the capacity it builds now and very much into the future, as summed up by Dr Flower Msuya.

“Policymakers will see the results in terms of policy events and best practice sharing events, things that will influence them to make better decisions in the seaweed aquaculture industry. Our results will show how to have good seed for farmers. Our research results may influence other researchers to take up and continue researching on seaweed problems such as diseases.”

Last updated: 23 October 2020

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