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COMESA countries upgrade laboratory diagnostic capacity to manage Fusarium TR4

Posted on Mon, 13 May 2024, 07:14

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Vienna, 26 April 2024. Member states of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) region have taken a significant step in their efforts to protect the region from infestation by the destructive Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense Tropical Race 4 (TR4) of banana. Participants from national plant protection organizations (NPPOs) from the following COMESA countries: Comoros, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Malawi, Seychelles, Somalia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, participated in a hands-on training course on Fusarium TR4 diagnostics from 22-26 April 2024. The training was organized by the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) under the framework of the “FAO support to COMESA trade facilitation programme”, a project implemented by the COMESA Secretariat and funded by the European Union. The Fusarium TR4 diagnostics training was hosted by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture at the Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory, Seibersdorf in Vienna, Austria. This was the first diagnostic training course delivered in collaboration between the IPPC and the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre.

The IPPC Secretariat oversees the phytosanitary component of the programme, including the creation of a regional networking platform for sharing information on risks of pests and diseases, and the establishment of an early warning and emergency response system to mitigate priority risks. Participants received hands-on experience in conventional and molecular techniques to enhance their knowledge of diagnosing Fusarium TR4 and creating timely reports to prevent its spread. The training was delivered by subject matter experts from the IPPC Secretariat, the Guangdong banana industry Institute of Fruit Tree Research in China, the Phytosanitary Diagnostic Laboratory of the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario (ICA), and Stellenbosch University’s Department of Plant Pathology in South Africa.

Fusarium TR4 is caused by a fungus that spreads through infected plants and contaminated soil particles and infects the roots of the banana plant, clogging the vascular system through which the plants receive water and minerals. The disease can cause up to 100 percent loss on farms and is a major threat to food security in countries where bananas are a staple crop. Fusarium TR4 also threatens the economic development of many countries that rely on banana exports for national income. In Africa, Fusarium TR4 has so far been reported in Comoros and Mozambique.

Countries need to appropriately diagnose plant pests and diseases such as Fusarium TR4 to make timely decisions concerning surveillance (detection, delimitation, and monitoring surveys), early warning, and response activities to prevent pest spread. Molecular techniques are becoming low cost, offer high sensitivity and specificity, are easy to operate, and provide quick detection, making them valuable in detecting pests, minimizing the risk of disease spread, and preventing disease introduction into new geographical areas.

Through sessions on topics such as using genome sequencing, sample collection and shipment, and biosecurity, participants gained a better understanding of Fusarium TR4 and how to strengthen preparedness and management strategies.

Workshop participants during capacity development session on diagnostic techniques for Fusarium TR4 © FAO/Preet Pramar

In her opening remarks, Fatma Sarsu, Acting Section Head of the Plant Breeding and Genetics Sub-Programme at the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre, commended the collaboration between FAO and the IAEA, highlighting the successful integration of laboratory research with practical applications in agriculture and biotechnology. She emphasized the “critical importance of bananas as a major cash crop globally” and underscored the relevance of the training course in “empowering countries to carry out surveillance, early detection, diagnosis, and implementation of disease management strategies.”

“Preparedness is crucial for the prevention of introduction of pests such as Fusarium TR4 into areas where they are currently absent” added Preet Parmar, IPPC International Phytosanitary Specialist. “This includes capacity development for NPPOs that can undertake diagnostic activities in a timely manner”.

“To enable safe trade, pest diagnosis must be completed quickly and to a high level of confidence”, said Adriana Moreira, IPPC Standard Setting Officer. “The most effective way to prevent and limit the international spread of pests from trade and passenger movement is through regulatory means, establishing phytosanitary measures. And therefore, proper pest diagnosis is crucial for the appropriate application of phytosanitary measures”, she added.

The IPPC Secretariat is currently coordinating global action on Fusarium TR4, including capacity development and implementation, coordination within the IPPC and FAO, global coordination with other organizations and RPPOs following a request made by the Commission on Phytosanitary Measures (CPM), the IPPC’s main governing body.

“The threat of Fusarium TR4 is real and pressing, and addressing this requires understanding its biology and epidemiology, pathogenicity testing, and knowledge of advanced molecular techniques for its detection", said Pooja Mathur, Head of Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory of the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre. “The role of NPPOs is pivotal in mitigating the impact of TR4 and safeguarding our agricultural systems” she added.

While officially closing the workshop, Dongxin Feng, the Acting Director of the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre said, “this hands-on training for COMESA countries is the first step taken together with IPPC to continue and strengthen our efforts in combatting Fusarium TR4 and safeguarding our agricultural systems”. She called for greater coordination and collaboration with global experts in the area to develop essential knowledge products, training materials, and emergency management strategies for addressing this pressing challenge.

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