Dr. Jean Ristaino was principal investigator and Dr. Linda Hanley-Bowdoin was co-principal investigator for the recent collaborative conference “Emerging Infectious Plant Diseases of Africa in the Context of Ecosystem Services.” The international conference took place April 8 to 12 at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. Attending were 19 participants who worked to develop a strategy to mitigate impacts of emerging plant diseases in sub-Saharan Africa.
Ristaino and Hanley-Bowdoin are faculty members in N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Ristaino is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the CALS Department of Plant Pathology. Hanley-Bowdoin is a William Neal Reynolds Professor of biochemistry in the Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry.
“Emerging plant diseases and pests plague food crops. Lack of crop biodiversity to withstand invasive new strains or species of pathogens is a common and repeated occurrence globally,” said Ristaino.
Specifically, she said that “armed and dangerous” plant pathogens plague African crops with such diseases as cassava mosaic virus, potato late blight and wheat stem rust, as well as bacterial, viral and fungal diseases of rice, corn, banana, sweet potato, taro and tomato. “The risk of introduction of pests and pathogens with trade between countries requires monitoring and improved diagnostic capabilities in the developing world and deployment of resistant varieties,” she said.
Conference participants included researchers from N.C. State, Colorado State University, Cornell University, Kansas State University, The Ohio State University and the University of California-Davis, along with eight African research institutions and three other international institutions. Together they explored a conceptual framework linking plant disease to ecosystem services, to determine if the spread of plant pathogens can be reduced using ecosystem service impact modeling and transformational technologies.
A major theme of the conference was how ecosystem services will provide the framework and cultural services, including long-term education and mentorship, for underrepresented African women in science, Ristaino said. “A conceptual framework linking plant disease to ecosystem services and gender was developed for major diseases of food crops.”
Within the Rockefeller Foundation’s vision of expanding opportunities for poor or vulnerable people, the conference was a forum on how the most advanced agricultural technologies that are sustainable and can minimize impacts on ecosystem services need to be deployed on a large scale in the developing world.
“These technologies need to reach the smallholder women farmers of Africa and be communicated to them by other African women scientists to have a lasting impact,” said Ristaino, who added that a major outcome of the conference was the structuring of research priorities of U.S. and African scientists to deploy the technologies to manage emerging plant diseases.
“The meeting also provided a forum for the coordination of a research network of plant scientists including pathologists, climate modelers, entomologists, breeders, ecologists and soil scientists that will provide Ph.D. level training to a cadre of African women,” she said.
In her conference report, Ristaino noted that the Bellagio conference “set the stage for the program and brought together many creative individuals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to discuss emerging plant diseases and develop plans to mitigate them.”
Among the conference outcomes, she said, are plans to publish a paper describing an ecosystem-services modeling approach for managing emerging plant pathogens of sub-Saharan Africa.
“We will integrate our strategy with development strategies of partners at CGIAR Centers, NARS, NGOs and USAID Washington and missions in East Africa,” she said. “We formulated a framework, and individual case studies (miniscenarios) on Emerging Diseases, Ecosystems and Gender were developed that will be incorporated into a ‘future solutions’ policy paper for publication and into research by submitting a proposal for the ‘next generation’ USAID Innovation Lab on Emerging Pests and Diseases.”
Funding for the conference was provided by the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center and National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Program. – Terri Leith