Monday, 5 March 2012 11:59 PM

Plant Health Clinics to Improve Diagnostic Services to Farmers

Farmers in the Pacific region will soon be able to take a sick plant to a plant health clinic in the town market for a diagnosis and recommended treatment - much like we visit a local medical clinic when we are not feeling well.

A pilot plant health clinic will be tested in Solomon Islands in the coming months. If it proves successful, the initiative will be scaled out to include other countries of the Pacific.

The operation and field-testing of the plant health clinics is an activity of a five-year Pacific-wide agricultural project focusing on integrated crop management (ICM) and identifying plant health management strategies. The AUD$3.4 million project, Strengthening Integrated Crop Management Research in the Pacific Islands in Support of Sustainable Intensification of High-Value Crop Production, is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) with regional activities coordinated by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). The project's aim is to build and sustain the capacity to develop integrated crop management (ICM) strategies to support the sustainable intensification of high-value crop production for export and domestic markets in the Pacific Islands. By strengthening the supply side of market chains for high-value crops, the project will complement the investments of the ACIAR Pacific Agribusiness Research and Development Initiative (PARDI) and the AusAID Pacific Horticulture and Market Access (PHAMA) project in agribusiness development and improved market access, respectively.

The field-testing of the plant health clinics initially in Solomon Islands is activity 2 and Objective One of the ICM project, to develop coordination and information support systems for intensified horticulture. High-value horticultural crops, including tomato, eggplant, chilli as well as bele are being studied under the project to find integrated and sustainable management strategies for pests and diseases. Finding alternative approaches to pesticide use is a major goal of the project.

Plant health veteran Dr Graham Jackson is the lead scientist pioneering the establishment of the plant health clinics. LRD information and communication thematic team will work closely with the team leader in coordination and information support for the pilot project. Plant health clinic is a concept that has proven successful in some South American and African countries.

Dr Jackson spoke about the planned plant health clinic system at the inception meeting of the ACIAR project. The meeting was held at the Sigatoka Research Station in Fiji, 20-24 February 2012, and was organised by the SPC Land Resources Division. Representatives from three of the four project countries - Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga (Solomon Island representatives were not able to attend) - attended the inception meeting.

'I'm excited about the establishment of plant health clinics', he said. 'The clinics will offer a good opportunity to test extension information materials and get feedback from farmers on the practical uses of extension materials.' Farmers have identified lack of access to useable information as an obstacle to improving their farming activities.

Solomon Islands was chosen to trial the clinics because of its extensive range of supporting extension leaflets and reference materials. The clinics will operate in public places such as markets, and even at events such as agricultural shows or trade fairs. The project will train 'plant doctors' mainly drawn from civil society groups and agricultural non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Kastom Garden Association (KGA) will play a significant role in recruiting 'plant doctors'. Training will be carried out on basic diagnosis, symptom description, how to establish and manage clinics, keeping records, and how to prepare samples for diagnosis. Diagnosis will be backed up by national, regional and international diagnostic centres.

'A major function of the plant health clinics is surveillance and monitoring of new pest and disease incursions which normally would not be intercepted unless a national pest survey is carried out,' said Dr Jackson.

The operation of the plant health clinics also addresses an important issue faced by national extension systems: staffing constraints result in very low farmer to extension officer ratios. Plant health clinics represent a bottom-up approach to improve national plant health services. They offer at least a partial solution to the challenge of lack of resources in formal extension services.

Monitoring and evaluation will be in place for the plant health clinics and if proven successful at the end of the project, it is the intention to scale out this extension model to other project countries.

Mr Tony Gunua (plant pathologist) and Mr Fereti Atu (plant health specialist) of LRD plant health thematic team are the main contact persons for the ICM Project.

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