U.S. and Haitian researchers team up to diagnose and manage plant pests and diseases
We live in an increasingly interconnected and changing world.
Plant diseases and pests that destroy crops don’t respect the borders of countries any more than viruses that cause worldwide pandemics in humans.
“Plant heath is important everywhere. And it’s even more important in a country like Haiti,” said Joubert Fayette, PhD., a Haitian native and lead researcher of the plant pathology program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored Feed the Future Haiti Appui à la Recherche et au Développement Agricole (AREA) project. “If you don’t have plant health you might lose everything.”
To boost Haiti’s plant pathology capabilities to detect and respond to threats, the AREA project and the University of Florida’s Institute for Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) formed partnerships with Haitian government agencies, research centers and universities. The work has made strides across the board, including modernizing plant disease diagnostic labs and training personnel at the Ministry of Agriculture and research and teaching institutions, conducting research to identify new and emerging diseases that threaten key crops, and developing disease control recommendations.
A never-ending threat to worldwide food supplies
Pathogens – fungi, bacteria, nematodes and viruses – threaten countless plants every year, and they can change and spread from region to region, making collaboration vital between countries such as Haiti to combat such threats, said Carrie Harmon, director of UF-IFAS’ Plant Diagnostic Center in Gainesville, Florida, and executive director of the U.S. National Plant Diagnostic Network.
The AREA-Haiti partnership has paid off in the identifying new pathogens destroying bananas, plantains and eggplants – a first step in developing strategies to control plant diseases. The collaboration has linked Haitian scientists and world-class plant disease laboratories at the University of Florida, where they can send samples of diseased plants to isolate potential pathogens and conduct diagnostic tests, including genetic sequencing, a scientific process unavailable in Haiti that zeros in on specific pathogens harming crops. UF and Haiti are members of the Caribbean Pest Diagnostic Network that provides an early-warning system to help farmers deal with diseases and pests that threaten agriculture.
Karen Garrett, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of plant pathology at UF, said UF and Louisiana State University trained master’s students from Haiti in plant pathology and entomology as part of AREA’s Master of Science program to provide advanced degrees to a new generation of highly skilled agricultural scientists in Haiti. The students and AREA’s plant pathology staff teamed up to conduct disease and risk surveillance assessments to identify and contain pathogens that enter the Caribbean and can harm some of Haiti’s most important crops, including not only bananas, plantains and eggplants, but also mangoes.
Equipping labs and training agricultural professionals
Haitian plant pathologists also say they have benefited from AREA’s support to equip laboratories with high-powered microscopes and other scientific equipment and to train scholars and agricultural professionals at the Bas Boën Rural Center for Sustainable Development (CRDD), the Ministry of Agriculture, the State University of Haiti’s Faculty of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine (FAMV) and the American University of the Caribbean (AUC).
“We are trying to take advantage of our relationship with AREA to build capacity, not only for our faculty but also for students,” said FAMV Vice Dean of Research Ophny Nicolas Carvil as he toured the Plant Diagnostic Center at UF/IFAS with Dean Jocelyn Louissant.
Rose Koenig, Ph.D., a plant pathologist and principal investigator of the AREA project, said, “We have created relationships that we expect to last beyond the project. This allows scientists at Haitian institutions and professionals to access proven processes for working with U.S. labs to help diagnose and manage new and emerging diseases and pests as they develop in Haiti.”
She is optimistic that the work to establish plant pathology partnerships between scientists in the U.S. and Haiti will continue to pay dividends in the years to come and help Haiti to feed its growing population.
Sidebar: Plant pathologists as agricultural detectives
To better understand what plant pathologists do consider them as detectives – especially when confronted with a case of a mysterious pathogen that is on the loose and harming crops. It’s essential work because before they can develop strategies to control the problem, first they need to solve what amounts to a who-done-it mystery.
In the case of bananas and plantains, a key cash crop in Haiti, farmers in some regions reported up to 60% of their crops suffered “toppling disease,” causing the plants to rot and topple over. In 2018, Fayette and UF doctoral candidate James Fulton visited farms in Haiti’s Archaie region, where they spoke with farmers, sampled their bananas and plantains, and identified areas where the disease was present. At the UF Plant Diagnostic Center, they conducted tests on infected and control plants and used high-tech tools to uncover the pathogen’s identity.
They discovered the culprit: Klebsiella variicola – a pathogen that has never been reported in Haiti before. AREA then collaborated with FAMV and the Ministry of Agriculture to communicate the findings and recommend strategies that have been used on other organisms that cause toppling diseases, including removal of infected plants, using clean plantlets produced via micropropagation, sanitizing tools, and avoiding the cutting of green or yellow-green leaves of infected plants.