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Plantwise: How plant clinics are saving crops around the globe

SAN member organization CABI launched its Plantwise program in 2011 and it has since then been introduced to 34 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The program’s main goal is to increase food security and improve rural livelihoods by helping farmers reduce crop losses due to plant health problems.

The SAN management team recently met Yelitza Colmenarez and her team to identify synergies and discuss collaboration opportunities in Latin America. Besides being the Director of CABI’s center in Brazil, Colmenarez also coordinates the Plantwise program in Latin America and the Caribbean. This program is one of the key elements the CABI team is developing to sustainably reinforce food security in the region.

A conversation with CABI’s Yelitza Colmenarez

How are CABI and its members working towards sustainability in food production?

CABI's core areas of work are guided and influenced by its member countries. We currently have 14 member countries in Latin America and 50 worldwide, with more in the process of joining. They are interested in increasing agricultural production in a sustainable way, especially when it comes to pest control management. In the case of countries in Latin America, their priority is to strengthen food security, producing more and more sustainably. After the pandemic, sustainability is increasingly part of their agendas and policies. With our member countries’ priorities in mind, we developed Plantwise, a global program focused on food security.

What is Plantwise doing to strengthen food security?

Through its network of plant clinics, the program combats phytosanitary problems and promotes biological control to guarantee the innocuousness of crops. Traditionally, Latin America and the Caribbean have not received as much funding from donors as Africa, for example, so countries here have had to target and prioritize certain production areas and use existing human resources. Our focus here was always on smallholders and medium-sized producers, as they did not have access to any resources. And we know that when smallholders are not supported, innocuousness is at risk. This is why we have been working in collaboration with national ministries and the scientific communities in each country to train extensionists who, in turn, train new local technicians.

Since 2020, Plantwise Plus aims to reinforce areas such as biological control, improving our plant clinics and adding new climate-smart solutions in line with the ministries’ needs.

What are the biggest challenges you are seeing in Latin America?

There are many technical challenges, and monitoring and evaluation is quite new in Latin America, as compared to other regions. Many times, we need to evaluate toxicity in places where toxic residue has never been tracked before. There are important challenges in pesticide applications. The misuse of the application technology itself can be as bad as the pesticide’s components. And even sometimes the chemicals being used are not a problem, but the way they are applied is.

How have you trained producers to reduce these risks?

The Plantwise program has been very much focused on training the technicians in communicating the techniques effectively to the producers, as they will need to replicate the methods taught by the technicians. They have been trained on the rational use of pesticides, including how to protect themselves and those around them, where to store the products, how to discard containers, how to measure the products, and more.

Producers did not only follow our suggestions but also improved our protocols and processes. They absorb the information provided by the technicians, improve the techniques, and adopt them, which is the ultimate goal of effective communication.

There are communities where schools got involved too, as kids have a great influence on their families. In some cases, they can read while their parents cannot. Engaging women is also crucial, both the farmers’ wives and the ones who work the land themselves.

What has been the impact that training activities have had on the communities?

Trained producers apply considerably less amount of chemicals, and this has a positive impact on their profitability. Producers are able to better control pests with alternative methods while increasing their margins – and adoption is always easier when they see the tangible benefits of the training. Trained producers have been the best ambassadors of the program, and we have even seen farmers coming to our plant clinics from remote villages to get assistance. This is a very positive, unintended outcome we did not expect when we launched the program.

Please, visit the membership section on our website to learn more about CABI and the SAN membership.

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