Future-proofing partnerships

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The recent International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) in Boston brought together members of the plant health community from all over the world. Large events are a great place to forge new relationships, strengthen existing ones, or simply get everyone together in one place. The importance of working together is always emphasised when all corners of the community come together and find the space to discuss and discover common ground.

This was the focus of a session organised by CABI at ICPP titled Feeding the Future: Partners in plant health. Chaired by Plantwise programme executive, Washington Otieno with panelists Kirk Shirley from USDA Foreign Agricultural Service and Scott Heuchelin from Corteva Agriscience. The session highlighted the fundamental need for partnerships in plant health and food security.

With Plantwise representing the viewpoint of CABI as an international not-for-profit organisation, USDA as a food security donor, and Corteva the private sector, the session drew together diverse perspectives and valuable insights into how we all contribute to bringing plant health science from the lab to farmers’ fields; focusing on the importance of building genuine partnerships, leveraging on one another’s strengths to combat pests and diseases. But are these partnerships sustainable and future proof?

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USDA
With essential objectives and funding streams often the main drivers, “partnerships are critical to address complex plant health issues in designing programmes,” said Kirk Shirley. USDA’s partnerships are enabling them to deliver, often remotely, in a range of diverse areas giving them a good overview of systemic issues in plant health. An example outlined by Mr Shirley is the distance learning project to bolster Pakistan’s sanitary and phytosanitary skills and knowledge. This project has been ongoing since 2011 with partners CABI and Texas A&M University, and earlier this year it was announced that the learning course would be going global and available in multiple languages including English, Spanish, and French.

Partnerships facilitate vital expertise and access to rural communities and enable programmes to reach as many beneficiaries as possible. However, there will always be restrictions due to funding or geopolitics and, as Mr Shirley pointed out, “phytosanitary issues don’t respect borders” which can create frustration and challenges often beyond the remit of control. Therefore “coordination and communication are absolutely crucial” to successful partnerships, concluded Mr Shirley.

Corteva
Partnering with the private sector within agriculture may seem like a natural fit because agriculture is such a big business. Indeed, Dr Scott Heuchelin of Corteva Agriscience said that industry can and does contribute to a wide range of partnerships and gave a few examples of projects he had been involved with over the years including AWARD – professional development of African women, and BeCA – funding to support the creation of knowledge and expertise for capacity development.

Dr Heuchelin asserted that partnerships give both industry and collaborating partners opportunities to deal with pressing problems more effectively but it’s not something that is actually adequately demonstrated in terms of scale and impact. Corteva has extensive global capacity but potential partners must reach out with their needs. As Dr Heuchelin noted, “no individual entity whether government, philanthropic, or industry can achieve goals alone, we all need to work together,” adding that “creating a global plant pathology network is crucial.”

CABI
An integrated approach to managing plant health underpins what Plantwise is all about. Programme executive, Dr Washington Otieno took on a double role of chair and panellist in the session and described how Plantwise is implemented across 32 countries using partnerships in each one. Partnering not only with government departments such as extension, research, plant protection but also others such as academia, NGOs, and the private sector. Under Plantwise, CABI has driven the agenda of multi-stakeholder framework for managing plant health.

Dr Otieno made sure to emphasise that it’s vital to remember that primary beneficiaries have needs outside of plant pests and diseases such as advice on inputs or market linkages, and if these issues are outside your organisations core areas of strength, “partnerships are the only path to wider success.” Reminding the audience of plant pathologists that when “dealing with human beings, the science can only go so far,” and remembering this in programme design is crucial.

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From left: Kirk Shirley (USDA), Scott Heuchelin (Corteva), Washington Otieno (CABI)

The theme of continuous communication, persistence, and coordination in order to maintain as much of the partnership as possible became the stand out theme from the audience members. What happens when a programme has reached is projected “end”, where does that expertise go?  Can we have better tracking methods and longer-term lines of communication? With the natural movement of people within and between organisations, former partners or experts aren’t always reachable further down the line.

Sustaining capacity requires not only full investment at the time of the project or programme; relationships should be future proof. As a starting point, individual organisations need to invest in keeping a good database on experts and their contacts. We can’t always rely on international conferences to bring us together again.

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