The Ministry of Agriculture has not been silent on the disease affecting plantains

Dear Editor,

I refer to Mervyn Williams’ letter published in Stabroek News on October 1, 2009 (‘The Ministry of Agriculture should mitigate the losses to farmers if fields of banana and plantain must be destroyed because of Black Sigatoka’).

Firstly before giving an outline of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Disease and Pest Management Program-me, I wish to respond directly to the inaccurate statements made by Mr Williams.

1. The Minister’s comments must have been misinterpreted by the writer of the article to which Mr Williams referred. The ministry’s technical assessment is that the disease problem with the Musa species (plantain and banana) is limited to mainly areas in Region 3, along the East Bank of the Essequibo River and Essequibo Islands. “This area” as mentioned in the article refers to the area outlined above and not Tuschen alone as contended by the reporter and Mr Williams.

2. Contrary to Mr Williams’ statements, the Ministry of Agriculture has not been silent on the disease affecting plantains. In fact the Extension and Research Staff have been making regular visits and holding training seminars with farmers in Region 3, as indeed all other regions, addressing their pest and disease problems. In this particular case, the Research Insti-tute was unable to identify this “new” disease and international support and assistance were requested.

The Ministry of Agricul-ture in its Disease and Pest Management Programme has a responsibility to monitor all diseases of plants continuously. These pests can be broken into regular crop pests, regulated pests, quarantine pests.

The regular pests are either indigenous or established in the area or country where they are found and can cause moderate to severe damage to the target crops. These pests are usually managed by using Agricultural Best Practices (ABP) or Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) in the cultivation of the crops grown. This is usually supported by a team of Agricultural Exten-sion Officers who visit the farming communities or can be contacted at local offices within their working districts. The control of these pests is generally achieved by recommending the best combination of the use of appropriate land preparation, crop rotation, water management, fertilizer usage and chemical applications. Once managed correctly, these pests can be controlled without affecting the yields or the profits of the farmers.

The regulated pests usually refer to pests which may already be present in the area or country, but for which quarantine measures are applicable because the introduction of new strains (types) may cause an explosion of the disease infestation. These pests have export implications, since countries may restrict import crops infected with these pests or may require the products to be treated with prescribed chemicals. The management of these pests is usually done by the Plant Quarantine Staff with the support of the Agricultural Field Officers. This is done through the Farm Certification Programme where all farms exporting commodities must register with the ministry. These farms are then subjected to regular inspections and must subscribe to a given set of agronomic practices including GAPs. Farms that fail to meet the guidelines are not registered or are removed from the register if they no longer maintain the standards.

Quarantine pests refer to those pests that are not known to exist in an area or country and for which all efforts are made to keep them out. In cases where these pests penetrate the borders, then the goal is to limit their spread and ultimately eradicate them. This programme is usually managed by vigilant plant quarantine inspections at ports of entry including airports and wharfs, and supplemented by periodical surveys and surveillance in the farming communities. Surveys and surveillance exercises are executed by the Plant Quarantine Staff with support from the agricultural officers.

The disease affecting the plantains is within the list of quarantine pests for Guyana since it was not known to be present here before. As a result, the testing facilities at the National Agricultural Research Institute were unable to identify the causal agent that was creating the damaged plantains. That is to say, while being able to describe the damage caused in detail, the ministry was unable to recommend specific management practices since the causal agent remained unknown.

The ministry therefore approached the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) for technical assistance in identifying the disease and to recommend on methods of treatment and management. The FAO as a result dispatched an expert in Plant Pathology (Dr Litta Paulraj) who along with our local extension and research staff visited a number of plantain growing areas – both areas suspected of being infected and areas where no symptoms were observed. During these visits visual observations were made, and samples from the plants were collected and tested. The preliminary result of these observations and tests was given as Black Sigatoka, a foliar fungal disease of plantains and bananas. Dr Litta Paulraj however recommended that a definitive diagnosis be done by an internationally accredited laboratory as is the prescribed practice with disease diagnoses, and CABI was recommended.

The ministry has since approached CABI which has agreed to test the samples for Guyana and provide the required definitive diagnosis. The samples have since been collected by the local staff and are now being grown under special laboratory conditions and will be shipped as soon as they are determined to have reached the correct stage for posting.  Based on the science of this test, the ministry expects a response within a matter of weeks.

In the interim, the ministry has set up a task force which has drafted a project document for the consideration of cabinet to manage this disease if our worst fears are confirmed. In the meanwhile the officers of the ministry continue to work with the farming communities and the following tasks are being undertaken: –

1. Surveys are being conducted to determine the specific areas affected and the stage of infection.

2. Farmers are being advised to remove and destroy (burn) all affected plants/fields. In such cases farmers will be advised on alternate crops that can be gown on these fields that can provide the same level of economic income.

3. Farmers are being advised to give greater attention to sanitation, that is, the washing of all tools and equipment when moving from one field or cultivated area to another.

4. Farmers are being advised to avoid the movement of planting materials from one field to another or one area to another. In cases where this is necessary, the staff of the Ministry of Agriculture must be consulted for clearance.

5. Farmers are being advised to report all suspected cases of disease symptoms to the nearest Ministry of Agriculture official.

The Ministry’s approach on this occasion is no different from those which were adopted when Guyana had an outbreak of the Pink Mealy Bug. The record would show that the ministry did manage to control the spread of the Pink Mealy Bug in a relatively short time.

The ministry thus wishes to advise Mr Williams to visit the Ministry of Agriculture if he requires any more information on our programme for the management of this problem. The ministry also offers short courses on pest and disease management in the various farming communities, and Mr Williams will do well to attend. Such action will avoid him repeating the errors he made in his letter.

Yours faithfully,
Joseph McAllister
Technical Manager
Plant Health Services

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