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Research seeks to counter crop pests

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[dropcap]M[/dropcap]assive crop losses caused by the fall army worm and other pests could be a thing of the past, thanks to an innovative pest forecasting research effort currently under way. Launched in Embu last week, the Pest Risk Information Service (PRISE) pilot project will provide alerts on the life cycle of pests at any given time and place.

It will be possible to predict pest occurrence and spread, thereby helping to warn farmers to take appropriate measures in good time, to avert potential crop losses.

Scientists are using earth observation data from satellites in combination with field observation methods from both extension workers and farmers to provide these alerts. The study will focus on the interaction between pests and three target crops that include maize, tomato and the common bean in the first year.

The research is looking at the fall army worm and two stem borer pest species affecting the maize crop as well as the leaf miner on the bean plant. This is in addition to studying the behaviour of tuta absoluta on the tomato plant.

And in order to achieve this objective, “the PRISE project will be utilizing three data models in this study, comprising of the weather, crop and pest data models,” explains Dr. Johnson Nyasani, the Agricultural Entomologist at the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO).

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In other words, observations will be made on the effects of weather patterns on the relationship between pest and plant under the first model. Whereas the growth stages of the plant as well as the life cycle of the pest will be dwelt on under the crop and pest data models respectively. These will look at development stages at which the pest and crop interacts.

“We want to link the three models to predict where and when a particular life stage [of the pest] will occur, which will serve as an early warning system for farmers to get prepared and take appropriate steps well in advance,” says Nyasani.

The Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) is leading a consortium of other organisations in this research, which is funded by the UK Space Agency. It is a five-year project, currently running in Kenya, Ghana and Zambia. Field trials are taking place at KALRO’s Food Crops Research Institute, Embu Centre.

These models are used to predict what the pest situation is going to be in the future, explains Cambria Finegold, CABI’s Global Development Director of Knowledge Management, adding: “so, we need to know how good that is.”

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Observations of pests on crops are validated against the models to make sure that they are as accurate as can be. And should the need to make adjustments arise, this is done to make sure alerts provide the right information at the right time to the farmers.

Alerts will be received by what are known as plant doctors and farmers, who collaborate with researchers.

Plant doctors are extension workers trained to diagnose various plant health problems and offer science-based recommendations to farmers. In Embu for example, these doctors hold plant clinics in market places and shopping centres every Thursday. Farmers visit them with samples of the affected plants for advice.

After receiving this information from the farmer, the plant doctor will go to the ground to ascertain whether a potential pest outbreak is imminent and reports back. “You can detect the adult insects before they move to the plant to lay eggs,” says Nyasani.

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The farmer will then be advised on when to look for either the eggs or caterpillars on the leaves, because the life cycle of the pest can now be understood. CABI is also collaborating with KALRO in a basic research to understand the life cycle of the fall army worm, because no such model exists.

Researchers are working with two farmers within a 14km radius from the research station under the PRISE project in Embu. More crops will be included to the three under research in addition to more pests.

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GEOFFREY KAMADI
GEOFFREY KAMADIhttp://www.businesstoday.co.ke
Geoffrey Kamadi is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He can be reached at email: [email protected]
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