Safeguard plants for survival of humanity


Desert locusts feed on coffee flowers in Kangurwe, Nyeri. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG

On March 29, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to designate every May 12 as the International Day of Plant Health.

This day is meant to raise global awareness of how sustained plant health can reduce hunger, poverty, protect existing biodiversity and the environment as well as accelerate economic development.

The ecosystem we live in is mainly composed of biotic (plants and animals) and abiotic components.

Plants are the primary producers and all other living organisms depend on them.

Plants play a significant role in our lives making 80 percent of the food we eat and 98 percent of the oxygen we breathe. Without plants, there would be no life on earth.

Plants provide us with a variety of things to fulfil our daily requirements including food, clothes, wood, medicine, shelter and aesthetics.

Narrowing down to food security, medicine and economic development — the three most significant contributions of plants to humanity — the UN estimates that the world population shall reach 10.9 billion by the turn of the century.

It is further projected that most of this population growth shall take place in sub-Saharan Africa, which at present is a food-insecure region.

Therefore, there is an urgent necessity to interrogate the plant protection and production systems to secure adequate food for the rising populations and ensure sustained production of raw materials for agro-industries, which create jobs and spur economic development.

In Kenya, agriculture is key to economic growth. In 2019, the sector contributed 34.1 percent to the national gross domestic product or Sh3.3 trillion, according to the Economic Survey 2020.

However, optimal crop production is threatened by pest and disease invasion. It is estimated that on average 40 percent of crops are lost every year to pests and diseases such as fall armyworm, maize lethal necrosis disease, fruit flies, migratory locusts, larger grain borer, Tuta absoluta and weeds such as water hyacinth and parthenium.

The diseases and pests have hurt food production and livelihoods.

International trade in plants and related products is equally affected where pests of concern to the importing country occur in the country of origin.

It is against this backdrop that Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) implements the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreements under the Food and Agriculture Organisation to safeguard against the introduction, establishment and spread of harmful plant pests.

The International Day of Plant Health is significant to Kenya and the global community because it is being celebrated at a time when threats of devastating diseases such as banana wilt disease Tropical Race 4 and others are being reported in areas where they were not known to occur.

The Kephis has been at the forefront of protecting Kenya’s plant health through the regulation of imports of plants and plant materials, phytosanitary (plant health) inspection and certification, and provision of diagnostic services to support plant health and seed certification.

As the world celebrates the International Day of Plant Health, Kephis calls to action all sectors to join the world in marking this significant day.

In particular, to increase awareness of the importance of keeping plants healthy to achieve the UN 2030 Agenda, especially Sustainable Development Goal 2 — zero hunger, the need to adhere to international standards and measures for plant health to minimise the risk of spreading plant pests through trade and travel, improving monitoring and early warning systems to detect pests invasion in advance for timely mitigation and sustainable use of pest control products to keep plants healthy while protecting the environment.

To build a strong future for plant health, there is a need to promote investment in plant health innovations, research, capacity development and outreach.

Celebration of plant health would not be complete without the inclusion of climate change and its effect on pest incursions and distribution.

Climate variability such as prolonged droughts and periodic rises in lake water levels adversely affect plant health and biodiversity. The variations in weather patterns and global warming have contributed to pest outbreaks in areas which were traditionally not known to be favourable for the pests.

To address the adverse impacts of climate change on plant health and biodiversity, Kephis advocates the adoption of climate-smart solutions in crop production and resource utilisation.

Prof Theophilus Mutui, Managing Director, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service