Tuesday September 2 2014

Why Africa should be ready for crop bacterial war

By Solomon K. Musisi

As the African Union celebrates the Year of Agriculture and Food Security amidst food security concerns across Africa, largely as a result of wars, we must plan early for the next war - crop bacteria.

The Italian case may seem far but it is an example for African governments to look at more closely. The Xylella Fastidiosa bacteria, originally found in the Americas and only being seen in Europe for the first time, is spreading fast and has already contaminated 800,000 trees in Apulia, a major olive tree growing region of Italy.

The insect-borne bacterium has greatly perturbed agricultural scientists in Italy and Spain, leaving them one detrimental option of cutting infected trees. The fact that more than half a million trees are already infected in the region of Apulia and olive trees across 74,000 acres of the region of Puglia makes it more difficult for the scientists.

Like Uganda, the Apulia region owes much its economic development to value added agricultural production and services, producing the best quality olive products in Italy. Market prices for the olive products are expected to increase by 30 to 40 per cent due to the growing production constraints.

Given the resources at the disposal of Italian agricultural scientists in comparison to their Ugandan counterparts, a similar attack on major crops in Uganda could be of utmost detriment.

Though the application of prior expertise, the banana Xanthomonas wilt was statistically well handled according to sector analysts. The wilt was responsible for 30 to 50 per cent losses in banana yields in central Uganda from 2001 to 2004.

One question, however, is: What if a never before seen enemy surfaced? A likely citation is the fungal Foc TR4 banana wilt disease recently discovered in Mozambique. Agricultural sector players need to learn from the health sector in developing anti-attack strategies. Specific focus on each of the crop and animal species will go a long way in strengthening existing strategies.

A new ‘rebel’ against Uganda’s major staple agricultural product - like is the case for Italy’s Apulia region and the olive tree - would affect food security in a country with the highest per capita annual consumption of bananas in the world at 0.70 kg per person. The reversal of the production of this crop could starve many Ugandans.

While globally banana crop is staple food for an estimated 400 million people in developing countries, and whose production in Africa has doubled over the past 30 years (with only 15 per cent on the international market), the households that account for the 85 per cent domestic level consumption of bananas risk starvation in case of crop bacteria.

The Ugandan population is unique given the fact that Uganda is the second largest producer of the banana crop in the world despite the 12.5 per cent local production setback from 6,129,724 mt in 1999/2000 to 5,360,500 in 2005/2006.

In addition, Uganda is host to 120 varieties of the East African Highland Banana that are not found anywhere else in the world.

A rather preventive strategy in plant pathology and biotechnology in Uganda and other countries across the African continent would answer the call from agricultural scientists and researchers in Italy: “Prevention is better than cure” and save many from famine and scarcity of Vitamins A, B1, B2 and C.

Facilitation of partnership benefits with international organisations such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations at all available platforms would be equally strategic.

Mr Musisi is the national chairperson and founder committee of the Pan-African Agricultural Students’ Society. solomonkalema@yahoo.com