Plant clinics scheme to boost food security

By Mark Kinver
Science and environment reporter, BBC News

image captionA network of clinics will offer an early warning of potential outbreaks of plant pests and diseases

A "plant clinic" scheme to improve food security in developing nations has received a £6.8m boost from the UK and Swiss governments.

The clinics, similar to human doctors' surgeries, offer local farmers advice on how to treat pests and diseases.

Organisers hope to collate data from front-line "plant doctors" in order to provide an early warning system.

It is hoped that more than 400 clinics will be established in 40 countries over the next five years.

Trevor Nicholls, CEO of Cabi (Centre for Agriculture Bioscience International) - a not-for-profit science body - said the investment of £1m from the UK government and £5.8m from Swiss ministers was a "significant endorsement for the initiative".

Dr Nicholls said the "plant clinics" operated in a similar way to doctors' surgeries in human health.

"So far, there has not been a service like that or plants, but that is what we are looking to do," he explained.

"The farmers come to the plant doctors with whatever problem they are experiencing in their crops. As a result of that, it is very much more responsive to what is causing trouble for the farmers at that particular point.

"The clinic goes back to the same place week in and week out so it is a regular fixture that the farmers know that they go to."

Early warning system

Dr Nicholls said that, at present, there were clinics operating in 15 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

"Each clinic, over time, serves a huge number of farmers in the local area. We find that farmers are travelling anything up to 50 miles to attend these clinics, so certainly the advice the "doctors" are giving seem to be highly valued."

The clinics will operate as part of a "Plantwise knowledge bank", which is set to begin in June and act as a bio-security early warning system.

"In exactly the same way that a GP might pick up the first signs of an outbreak of bird flu etc, so the plant doctors can be there on the ground to pick up the first signs of a new pest, or something that has not been picked up previously," Dr Nicholls explained.

"The knowledge bank will be a valuable tool for plant doctors within a country to communicate with each other. Often, countries do not have the resources to set up a website so we are fufilling that function by allowing one person to to see what another person is doing in another part of the country.

"If you begin to see the spread of a pest, you can begin to ask questions about how it correlates to weather patterns, trade or people movements etc.

"This means that you might be able to identify areas that are at risk in the future, allowing you to take preventative measures."

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