Our scientists must do more to stop menace of emerging pests

Tuesday November 12 2019

 

By OKODAN AKWAP

Back in early 2014, I planted a single improved variety of mango tree in my compound. My aim was to raise a tree from which I would harvest and enjoy organic fruit. I avoided the standard method of fertilisation of plants, which entails applying dry plant fertiliser to the soil. I had heard that such dry plant food was loaded with dangerous cancer-causing chemicals.
Instead, I opted for a brand of liquid fertiliser that came with very elaborate instructions. Foliar feeding, the method of applying fertiliser by the leaves, is supposedly not only safer, but it also overcomes the problem of plants failing to absorb certain nutrients by the roots. The fertiliser is mixed with water and applied to the leaves in just the right amounts as specified in the package.
In 2017 when the first fruits appeared, I refused to spray them with pesticides. I got a harvest of organic mangoes. The same thing happened in 2018. Then this year, fruit flies invaded the tree. I watched helplessly as every single mango rotted away. The warning is stark: Only pesticides can keep the invading flies away.
But increasingly, there is abundant information linking use of toxic pesticides in plants such as fruits, cereals and tubers to the rising cases of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc.
The scariness of this information is even causing confusion. On the one hand, nutritionists and medical people preach to us the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables to maintain good health. On the other hand, environmentalists issue warnings against excessive use of pesticides that are wreaking havoc not only on the health of humans, but also that of the soils and plant, animal and insect species.
Today, sinking your teeth into a juicy pawpaw, mango, water melon and any other fruit may mean that you are sinking your teeth into death. The same story is about vegetables such as cabbages, beans, peas, tomato, potato, eggplant, pumpkin, yam, etc, etc.
Many processed foods also contain cancer-causing compounds. (For example, see: ‘UNBS suspends seven Kenyan-made butter products over cancerous toxins’ in the Daily Monitor of November 7.) It appears that practically everything reaching our plates is potentially a killer. This is a matter that must drive our efforts at policy-making and scientific developments in the face of one of the most challenging realities of our time – climate change.
Every other day, we hear stories of our scientists in agricultural research institutes in Namulonge, Kawanda, Mbarara, Ngetta, Serere, Bulindi, Rwebitaba, Makerere University, etc, coming up with new varieties of crops that are tolerant to drought or efficient in nitrogen uptake. But not much seems to be coming out in the critical area of crops that are resistant to emerging diseases and pests that in recent years have caused so much damage to farmers. This is one reason why farmers continue to resort to excessive use of pesticides.
I live in a rural community that is practically dependent on crops such as maize, cow peas, ground nuts, cassava and potato. They are both staple food and cash crops. But I have never seen crop varieties that are resistant to brown streak disease in cassava or blight disease in potato, or to emerging pests such as the armyworm that I have seen devastate maize gardens in my area.
We must stop talking about food security in terms of harvests. Government must increase agricultural funding to enable our scientists to stop the menace of pests or even stop the use of pesticides that expose us all to the risks of dying young.
Dr Akwap is a senior lecturer at Kumi University. oakwap@gmail.com

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