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Plant virus impacts in a changing climate

Last month we ran a stakeholder consultation workshop for mapping weather and climate services and digital information and tools for crop pest and disease management in Kenya. This is part of a new collaborative research project that aims to understand vector-borne plant virus impacts on nutrition in a changing climate.  

The workshop was delivered by CABI and held at CABI’s regional centre for Africa, jointly facilitated by Henry Mibei, CABI’s Manager of Digital Development and Dr Joseph Daron, Science Manager at the UK Met Office and Senior Research Fellow at University of Bristol. It brought together representatives from the Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate (KEPHIS), along with plant health extension and quarantine officers, to identify gaps in the current provision that new information tools might be able to fill. The goal was to better understand current needs for weather and climate services, information and tools, to tackle crop pests and diseases in Kenya. 

This included considering short-term (weather/seasonal) perspectives alongside longer-term (climate change and future climate projections) time scales to understand risks, drivers and needs. Participants also considered how farmers and local communities are managing the impacts of changes to weather and climate patterns on crop diseases. This way information and tools can make best use of local knowledge and support the communities who will use them. 

Joseph Daron, joint facilitator of the workshop, said:

“It was a privilege to engage in the workshop and collaborate with CONNECTED and CABI. It was a unique opportunity to bring together experts from the plant health and virus community in Kenya with weather and climate experts, at a particularly challenging time for the country experiencing a prolonged drought.”

Florence Chege, Project Scientist at CABI based at its Nairobi, Kenya, office, told the workshop participants that weather and climate is influencing the distribution of diseases borne by vectors and outbreak of pests in a vast range of crops. 

Up to 40% of the world’s food supply is already lost to pests. There is a need to adopt climate-smart pest management approach that considers weather and climate information alongside pest surveillance, detection, management and advice to farmers. 

Furthermore, according to the International Livestock Research Institute, many crops foundational to African diets, such as wheat, maize, sorghum and millet, will struggle to survive rising temperatures brought about by climate change. 

Under warming of 2℃, crop yields across sub-Saharan Africa will decrease by 10 per cent. Warming beyond the 2℃ mark will cause crops yields to fall by up to 20 per cent. If warming is allowed to hit the 3℃ mark, majority of present-day cropping areas for maize, millet and sorghum in Africa will become unsuitable. 

The first session of the workshop focused on identifying the crops, pests, and diseases of concern and how they are impacted by weather and climate hazards, such as drought and heat. 

This included a focus on pests such as the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) and the whitefly on cassava which spread cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) – this can cause the total loss of crops. Previous research led by the University of Bristol School of Biological Sciences developed the first molecular diagnostic tools to support the accurate and rapid identification of diseased cassava material. Ongoing work by CONNECTED and the Met Office is exploring the viability and potential spread of whitefly in a changing climate. 

Henry Mibei, CABI’s Manager, Digital Development, facilitating the stakeholder consultation workshop (Credit: CABI)

The second session of the day explored the seasonal climate outlook for Kenya, taken from the 63rd Greater Horn of Africa Seasonal Climate Outlook Forum (GHACOF), and accessible services provided by the KMD. The final session sought to learn from local practices and posed the question as to whether or not farming communities are already managing weather and climate impacts on crop health and production. 

Closing the session, Dr Nina Ockendon-Powell, Co-Manager of the CONNECTED Network, noted the success of the workshop in identifying examples of best practice while also uncovering opportunities for improving current weather and climate services, information and tools for pest and disease management.