Plant clinics – or why sometimes development looks easy and obvious

Bumped into an ‘agricultural anthropologist’, Jeff Bentley, who works in Cochabamba, Bolivia and was intrigued by his work promoting ‘plant clinics’, where farmers bring in examples of sick plants and get a diagnosis and prescription in a system modelled on human healthcare (they even have a two tier structure of General Practitioners as first point of contact and more expert consultants for the tricky diagnoses).

Plant clinics helps farmers avoid the futile costs of self medication, dosing fields with the wrong pesticides, and makes sure they use the right ones instead, or none at all, if that works best. Advocates argue that it’s also extremely cost effective, compared to, say extension services, where government officials visit farmers to give advice, suggest new techniques etc. Plant clinics are particularly well suited to those government agronomists (and I’ve met a few) who sit around in their office because they have no budget for transport. To open a plant clinic they just need to find an office near to the local market and wait for the farmers to come to them.

Jeff is affiliated with the Global Plant Clinic (CABI, Egham, Surrey, UK), which provides technical backstopping for the plant clinics, for example the clinic staff can email digital photos and descriptions of their problems to CABI for identification and recommendations. Jeff is also working with like-minded types to get greater outreach through local radio. He says that worldwide there are over 80 clinics operating through local organizations in Bolivia and Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Uganda, Pakistan, Nepal, India, 10 clinics in Viet Nam and a national system in Sierra Leone. The focus is fairly limited to plant health, but also includes advice on alternatives to pesticides (crop rotation, shade trees etc) and general crop health.

I talked to Shahid Zia, an agronomist and agricultural economist at Oxfam, about the idea. He reckons it works if you stick to plant health, but can easily be overcomplicated by adding entomology, animal health, soil science etc. Organizations like CABI have got the research backup and find this kind of scheme particularly easy to run. Non-science outfits have to rely on partnerships with local universities or other institutions, which can often prove problematic.

Shahid compares plant clinics favourably to other more expensive forms of outreach, such as research stations attached to institutions, which are often selling new products (more like high tech hospitals rather than clinics). He says a lot of the outreach is of the ‘we have this fertiliser, this is how you use it’ kind. Farmer field schools are a more two way process that more closely matches farmers’ needs, and mainly promoting integrated pest management, but they are considerably more expensive to run than plant clinics.

Sometimes good development practice seems both obvious and easy – please tell me what the catch is!

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Comments

6 Responses to “Plant clinics – or why sometimes development looks easy and obvious”
  1. Ken Smith

    I’m nowhere near qualified to comment on this , but I’m always a bit surprised at these types of intervention. Surely the real experts are the farmers themselves ? Can a clinic in Egham (not Rotherham or Glasgow I notice ! )really give more useful advice than your neighbour in the field next door ? Maybe climate change is changing local conditions so fast that local knowledge can’t keep up ?

  2. ^^ agree with above.

    Every time I’ve seen a group of farmers get together, they talk shop. A lot. Constantly. So it’s not like this hasn’t occurred to anyone before.

    So my question would be, what do farmer social circles look like in places where this is popular? Are those networks broken? Is there some reason that peer-to-peer learning and support isn’t taking place?

    Or are those communities really just information poor compared to the NGOs? I’m sceptical but it’s possible, particularly in places where monoculture was aggressively promoted and traditional knowledge was discouraged.

    Living seed banks are another way to do this — the seed bank relies on farmers to keep the varieties coming in and out, which creates a vibrant hub of information sharing.

  3. I’d like to reassure Ken and Jonathan that the plant clinics are run independently and make best use of local knowledge and skills – whether in Bolivia or Sierra Leone or Uganda (look for clinic article on Guardian/Katine website).

    The GPC is decidely not ‘another project’. Innovation is the key and not (re)invention. Existing knowledge, skills and social structures all play a vital part in our efforts. Our first task is to identify things that work and look for achieveable improvements (‘find out what people do and help them do it better’ said EF Schumacher). Our main jobs are organistion and training, building networks and so on. We only get involved scientifically as a last step (see below).

    The ‘plant doctors’ are all nationals based in the clinic countries. They are in high demand and farmer thirst for help is huge (43000 queries in one year in DRC). More specific GPC tasks include: starting clinics; training plant doctors and trainers; nurture young clinics; liaise with local agriculturists and scientists to provide a quality service for farmers.

    Plant health clinics have been around for many years but advisory services for plant and farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America neglect the poorest. Farmers do learn from each other and social circles are often strong, but these are of little benefit if a) you don’t recognize a problem and b) you don’t know the best solution.

    Clinics and doctors are needed for people, animals – and also plants. Which have been ignored for too long; hence our mission to improve access and reliability; make extension more accountable to farmers; and show what a great job agriculturists are doing.

    As head of the GPC, the last thing I want to do is tell others how to manage their crops. But there are huge gaps in knowledge and skills.

    Labs in Egham, Harpenden, York (almost Rotherham) and Invergowrie (almost Glasgow) improve the services provided in-country. How? Expert support when needed for tricky virus or phytoplasma diseases. Even common problems can be confusing.

    Why UK? Because that’s where diagnostic expertise exists. It’s not needed every day but it is used more often than you might imgaine. Why so? Consider: where was swine flu virus (H1N1) characterised? Mexico, with sophisticated scientific expertise? No – here in London.

    The number of new plant diseases we’ve confirmed and published with our partners around the world is pretty staggering – more than 40 in the last seven years.

    With this amount of information and enthusiasm it won’t surprise you that I’m head of the GPC. But there are many other voices and stories to learn from.

    Visit YouTube and you’ll see what others say about clinics, including farmers. Want to read more? Contact me (e.boa [at] cabi.org).

  4. Duncan

    Got this in an email from Jeffery Bentley (he had technical problems posting it as a comment):

    Both of the previous comments mention the theme of farmers as experts. Farmers do know a lot about their environment. If they didn’t they couldn’t make a living. But farmers do not know everything, especially about microscopic organisms that are impossible to observe with the naked eye.

    The nice thing about plant clinics is that farmers chose to come in. I was in one last night in Comarapa, Bolivia. It was tea time and a farmer came in while we were closing up. He had a strawberry plant in his hand. It was green, and looked healthy. “My strawberries aren’t bearing fruit,” he said. He looked worried.

    Olivia Antezana, a local agronomist with 10 years of experience sat down and looked the plant over carefully. Then she said “It looks like it needs nutrients. The leaves are very green, which means they have nitrogen, but you need to apply phosphorous and potassium as well to get fruit.”

    The farmer said “I planted it in fallow land”.

    Ms. Antezana said “sometimes even fallow land does not have enough nutrients for strawberries.” And she advised him on a fertilizer.

    “And what do I do about the rot?” the farmer asked.

    “Rot?” Antezana looked at the plant again. There was no rot visible. “Is it soft rot, the white kind?” she asked.

    “Yes.”

    “And you say you are irrigating with a sprinkler irrigating?”

    “Yes.”

    “You are not using plastic mulch,” She said.

    That impressed the young man, because he hadn’t told her that. And he said she was right: no plastic.

    “The splash from the irrigation water is causing the rot,” Antezana said.

    The farmer went away happy, and the agronomist promised to run some tests and if anything interesting came up, she would send him the results. As this little story shows, some agronomists also have impressive local knowledge, and good attitudes, and they like to share information in a respectful way, which the farmers appreciate.

    We don’t expect rural people to go without medical attention, or schools. So why should we deny them appropriate scientific information about crop health problems?

  5. Ken Smith

    Thanks Eric and Jeffery for the responses. Very informative and useful. Like education and health , I think I have no arguments about appropriate local help such as primary education , primary health care. I worry similarly with such projects as new University courses in developing countries or flying individual children to the UK for medical treatment -“appropriate scientific information about crop health problems” I can agree with that with a big underline on appropriate.

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