Imagine that your local market stall or supermarket aisle is devoid of staple foodstuffs such as maize, apples and bananas, let alone more ‘exotic’ and luxury products such as chili peppers or hazelnuts (the key ingredient of Nutella, which recently caused havoc in Intermarché supermarkets in France when consumers clambered to buy jars of the cocoa hazelnut spread, which were being offered at a 70 percent discount).
While it may seem like fantasy not to be able to fill your usual shopping basket of such goods in most European supermarkets, the prospect of not getting enough of essential food items (such as maize) for families across the rest of the world is very real indeed. And for those who think the Western world is immune to the challenges of the food supply chain, they should think again.
But what is causing this uncertainty around the world’s ability to maintain effective food security through the global food supply chain and, therefore, meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of ‘No Poverty’ and ‘Zero Hunger’? The answer lies with a growing biological threat posed by a range of agricultural pests and diseases which already account for close to a 50 percent loss in global production that is equivalent to $1.4 trillion a year.
The threat presented by invasive species around the world is very real and further exacerbates the challenge of feeding an anticipated global population of nearly 10 billion by 2050. Not only do invasive species affect the ability of farmers (many of whom are women and among the 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide who benefit from CABI’s [the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience] scientific expertise) to grow more and lose less in the field, they can also cripple a country’s ability to maintain effective supply chains by exporting to global markets.
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A case in point is Ghana’s recent ban on vegetable exports, worth $15 million a year, caused by poor phytosanitary systems to manage four quarantine pests including false codling moth, whitefly, thrips and fruit fly. Thankfully, this ban has since been lifted, due in part to CABI and its partners’ help in improving the country’s phytosanitary procedures; and Ghana’s chili peppers and other vegetables are making their way to Europe once more.
While there is no particular league table of worst ‘offenders’ in the field of risks posed by various pests and diseases, we can nevertheless point the finger at the following, among many:
- The Fall Armyworm – CABI’s recently published evidence note on the pest (which feeds on more than 80 crops but favours maize) suggests that it could cut maize yields by up to 60 percent, or in monetary terms a loss of between US$2.2bn to $5.5bn a year in lost harvests to just ten of Africa’s major maize-producing economies. Roughly 900 million Africans depend on maize for food each year.
- A trio of diseases – Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4), Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV) and Banana skipper butterfly (Erionota spp) – could decimate around $35 billion worth of banana plantations across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Bananas are a vital part of the diet for more than 400 million people in developing countries.
- The brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys), which has already caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage to hazelnut crops in Georgia and apple production in north eastern regions of the USA.
So what are CABI and its partners doing to help combat these and other pests and diseases? Clearly we need to have greater linkages to secure the global food supply chain; this includes a combination of better monitoring and recording of pests in order to alert authorities to take early action – something we at CABI are very keen to promote through our Plantwise initiative, which works to help farmers lose less of what they grow to plant health problems.
CABI also recently launched its UK Aid and DGIS-funded Action on Invasives programme, which will champion an environmentally sustainable, cross-sectoral and regional approach to dealing with a range of invasive species. The aim of this unique, global programme is to improve the livelihoods of 50 million poor rural households impacted by invasive species, and ultimately improve the linkages in the global food supply chain.
Other ‘weapons’ in our arsenal to fight global invasive species and diseases which can impinge on the worldwide food supply chain include the recently launched Horizon Scanning Tool (HST) – supported by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). The HST helps risk assessors, plant protection officers; quarantine officers, protected area managers and researchers identify potential invasive species threats to a country, state or province. It utilises data from the Invasive Species Compendium, which is a repository of the best available science on the invasive species that have the worst impacts in the world.
CABI is also, through the Plantwise programme, partnering with PEAT (Progressive Environmental & Agricultural Technologies) to conduct an 18-month pilot study to assess the benefits of a smartphone app called Plantix, which gives extension workers and farmers an improved ability to identify economically important pests, diseases and nutrient deficiencies and manage them in order to safeguard crops and livelihoods.
But we must remember that all of our proactive work towards ensuring greater food security and more secure global food supply chains is set against the added challenges of climate change, as well as political and social instability – whether that be war or other civil unrest.
However, by supporting innovation and governance through building partnerships, CABI is committed to playing its part in improving pre- and post-harvest pest and disease management while conserving the environment, which can increase productivity and deliver greater impacts where food insecurity and poverty are greatest. We imagine a time when one day everyone’s food basket will be full and concepts such as poverty and hunger will be consigned to the valuable lessons of history, and weak linkages in the global food supply chain will be no longer susceptible to the risks of agricultural pests and diseases.