Plant health, COVID-19 and food security

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A timely discourse affecting the lives of the people and nations came to the fore in Owerri, the Imo state capital, as plant pathologists converged on the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO) for the 46th Annual Conference of the Nigerian Society for Plant Protection (NSPP), which was themed “Plant Health, Global Pandemic and Food Security”.

The gathering was a successful hybrid of a conference that was well-attended by plant protectionists, industries and members of agricultural-related agencies without violating the coronavirus (COVID-19) protocols. The Chief Host, Prof. Francis Eze, the Vice-Chancellor of FUTO, was represented by Prof. Polycarp Obasi, Dean of School of Agriculture and Agricultural Technology of FUTO, who declared the conference open while the opening ceremony was chaired by Prof. Martin Nwufo, a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Administration) of FUTO, as the chairman, Conference Local Organising Committee, Dr. Frank Ojiako, welcomed members to the conference.

The keynote address entitled, “Linkages and Interconnections between Plant Health, Global Pandemic and Food Security”, was delivered by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Administration), Michael Okpara University of Agriculture (MOUA), Umudike, Abia State, Prof. Elechi Asawalam while the Director-General, Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS), Dr. Vincent Isegbe presented a paper titled, “Securing the Place of Plants in One Health System” while another paper titled “Diagnosis and Management of Invasive and New Species of Plant Pests” was delivered by Prof. Ekanem Wokoma of the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), Rivers state by Dr. Zakka Usman of UNIPORT.

Highlights of the conference include the conferment of the society’s Fellowship on three of its members, namely: Prof. Elechi Asawalam of MOUA, Prof. Olalekan Banwo of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Kaduna state and Prof. Emily Ayo-John of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB); the 34th Volume of the Journal and maiden edition of The Compendium of Who-is-Who in Nigerian Plant Protection were launched; the plenary and technical sessions featured the presentation of papers by eminent scholars, which were extensively discussed; while a total of 109 abstracts were received. The papers, which cut across all disciplines of plant protection, were presented and discussed at technical sessions. Not only that, 26 institutions, representing universities, research institutes, polytechnics, colleges of agriculture, private and government agencies/organisations were present.

A major development that gladdens the heart of conference participants was the fact that the public hearing on the Bill for an Act to Establish the Nigerian Institute for Plant Protection (NIPP) was held successfully and the bill is currently at the harmonisation stage at the National Assembly. The bill is crucial because it would birth an institute that would coordinate issues on plant protection, and advise the government on related matters, among others.

Within the prism of the theme, the conference carefully observed that generally, pandemics are not just health crises, but can equally result in unprecedented socio-economic challenges that can destroy lives and livelihoods; the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has impacted negatively on the agricultural sector of the economy with tremendous effect on plant protection; healthy plants are vital to sustainable and profitable crop production thereby ensuring the nation’s adequate supply of food, fuel, and fibre; there are serious lapses and over-laps in the functions of the nation’s various agricultural production and regulation agencies; all components of food security including food availability, accessibility, utilisation and stability is paramount to the well-being of any nation; and there is a the serious dearth of experts in all areas of taxonomy across the plant protection discipline to tackle the issues of invasive pests.

As a way forward in meeting the many challenges facing the nation from its perspectives, the society has made six important recommendations in a communiqué that was issued and signed on behalf of the communiqué committee by its chairman, Prof. Gabriel Ihejirika, as follows: the global vision of One Health should encompass and embrace, as equals; human health, animal health, plant health, and environmental health; government and other sponsoring agencies should be massively invested in at all levels on knowledge-based agricultural production at all levels; the government should create, enhance and sustain a harmonious and working relationship between and among other organisations and institutions; and finally, scientists and students should be encouraged and motivated to pursue specialisation in the area of taxonomy in crop protection disciplines.

NSPP was established 51 years ago, precisely on May 16, 1970, at the then Department of Agricultural Biology, now Crop Protection and Environmental Biology, University of Ibadan, Oyo state. It is made up of professionals in plant protection and allied fields covering individuals and corporate organisations and maintains robust cooperation with other societies such as the Nigerian Society of Nematologists, Weed Science Society of Nigeria, Mycological Society of Nigeria, Nigerian Phytopathology Society and Entomology Society of Nigeria. The focus of NSPP covers the fostering of synergy between research, industry, and policy in plant protection for increased agricultural production in Nigeria while the incumbent President is Jonathan Atungwu, a professor of plant nematology at FUNAAB, the institution hosting the 47th Annual Conference of NSPP in 2022 in the Rock City of Abeokuta.

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