Newswise — Farmers in Bangladesh who are battling outbreaks of leaf blight and insect pests are now getting expert help from Southeast Asia's first plant disease clinic, co-founded by Robert Wick of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The clinic is housed at the Bangladesh Agricultural University in Mymensingh, under the direction of co-founder M. Bahadur Meah.
"Several farmers attended the opening ceremony, including one who had travelled over 20 kilometers by bus and rickshaw to find out what was stunting the growth of his bitter gourd vines," says Wick, a professor of plant pathology who secured funding for the clinic from the U.S.D.A. Foreign Agricultural Service. "Clearly, they were desperate for ways to increase their crop yields."
An online journal on Bangladesh by Wick can be found athttp://people.umass.edu/wick/fulbright/2008.html.
According to Wick, Bangladesh claimed to be self-sufficient in 2005, but unexpected losses due to pests and weather have kept farmers from producing enough food to satisfy demand. Rice has been especially hard-hit, forcing the government to import this staple crop, which is eaten daily by most Bangladeshi. Lines of women and children waiting to purchase rice at a reduced cost have become a familiar fixture in many cities.
A significant part of the problem is that an estimated 20 percent of the crops grown in Bangladesh are lost to insect pests and diseases before they reach the table. Increasing the amount of land used for agriculture won't solve the problem. "Most of the arable land is already under crop production, and in some cases, a single plot of land produces up to three crops each year," says Wick. "Increases in food production will come from using high-yield cultivars and the management of pests and weeds."
Through the clinic, farmers and extension agents finally have a way to positively identify hundreds of plant diseases caused by microorganisms, instead of relying on visual inspections, which are often inaccurate. Farmers will be able to bring plant samples to the clinic, and the staff will use culturing techniques and microscopes to identify which fungus, bacteria or virus is causing the problem. The clinic will also identify insect pests, and provide information on nutrient deficiencies and their causes.
After receiving a diagnosis, farmers will be advised on the best management practices for controlling their particular problem, which will protect their health and the health of the environment by reducing pesticide use.
"Right now, farmers in Bangladesh believe that a prescription for pesticides will solve their crop problems, but this won't help if the damage stems from bacteria or a plant virus," says Wick. "At the clinic, they will be told how to manage crops in an environmentally friendly way, using cultural methods like weeding, rotating crops and trapping pests."
According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the average pesticide application rate in Bangladesh is currently 1.36 kilograms per hectare, which is equivalent to roughly 2.5 acres. This exceeds the recommended environmentally safe rate of 0.98 kilograms per hectare. Most of the pesticides are being used on rice crops, a situation that has led to water quality problems and the death of fish. Clinic staff will also educate farmers on the safe use of pesticides.
Although recently opened, the center has an ambitious agenda. In addition to helping farmers increase their crop yields and financial security, the center will educate extension specialists and students by offering workshops. Wick taught diagnostic plant pathology in Bangladesh as a Fulbright Scholar in 2006.
The clinic can also provide a quality control center for certifying that plants for export are free of pathogens, identify important or emerging problems that require investigation, and develop a historic record of the occurrence of plant diseases.
Eventually, the team hopes to establish clinics in each of the six districts of Bangladesh, similar to the plant disease clinics found at land grant universities in each state in the U.S.