Conferences archive > 2010 > SPEAKERS & ABSTRACTS

Wafaa El Khoury

Wafaa El Khoury is a plant pathologist at the Plant Production and Protection Division of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, Italy. After her initial studies in agriculture at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, she was awarded a PhD in plant disease epidemiology at the Justus-Liebig University of Giessen, Germany. She has over 20 years of experience in university teaching, research, and agricultural development projects with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and USAID working directly with both poor farming and rural communities and agrofood producers in the Near East. Her present work at FAO involves providing plant protection expertise for various projects and programmes in Africa, the Near East, and Central and South Asia, mainly focusing on transboundary plant diseases affecting staple crops in developing countries. Advice and technical support is provided to governments to draw up and implement contingency plans and systems to improve their preparedness to face potential food security threats due to plant disease epidemics. Activities in the countries target policy makers, technicians, researchers, extension agents and farmers mainly in a participatory approach. Key features of preparedness include strengthening national field surveillance of diseases and emerging pathogens, regional and global information sharing mechanisms, national seed systems and vegetatively propagated planting material, national landscape management and gene deployment strategies, and field management of diseases by farmers and farming communities. She is the coordinator of FAO’s Wheat Rust Global Programme and is involved in the development of similar programmes to tackle banana, cassava and potato diseases in close cooperation with national and international partner institutions including International Agricultural Research Centres. She is presently the Vice President of the International Plant Pathology Society (ISPP), and she has previously served as the President of the Arab Society for Plant Protection and was for several years its Vice-President and Secretary Treasurer.  

Viruses, Insect and Hunger

Plant diseases cause annual losses of about US$ 60 billion, by lowering both quantity and quality of agricultural production. With over 800 recognized plant viruses, they are a major contributor to these losses, especially exacerbating food insecurity of the poorest of the poor. Approximately, 75% of the world’s one billion hungry and poor livein rural areas, deriving their livelihoods from agriculture. Viral diseases cause serious losses in cassava, banana, rice, potato andother staple crops, affecting livelihoods of millions of poor inrural communities. Unfortunately, plant viruses in agriculture go beyond just lowering quantity and quality of production; they also hamper international trade through quarantine restrictions.

Plant viruses cause diseases with a range of symptoms. They are transmitted mainly through vector organisms such as insects and mites. The virus-vector relationship is specific for different diseases and is critical for disease management strategies. Some plant viruses are transmitted through seeds and through vegetatively propagated plant parts.

Disease diagnosis and virus identification are essential to exploit appropriate disease management strategies based on pathogen epidemiology and transmission mechanisms. Such strategies include use of virus-free planting material, appropriate cultural practices, integrated vector management and host plant resistance. Resistance breeding is effective against plant-to-plant transmission (seed and vector transmission), intracellular virus multiplication, and virus translocation and colonization of the plant.

The increase in emerging infectious plant diseases globally has been expressed in the form of 1) an increase in incidence, geographical or host range, or 2) changes in pathogenesis, or 3) newly evolving, or 4) newly discovered or identified plant diseases. Most emerging infectious plant diseases are caused by viruses. The range of mechanisms involved in this process ofevolution and emergence of infectious viruses includes recombination and synergism between virus species, new vector biotypes, genome integration, host adaptation and long distance dispersal. These processes are consistently linked to major human-induced changes in the agricultural production system including crop introductions, crop intensification, germplasm movement, and introduction of new genotypes.

The risks associated with emerging viral diseases are higher in developing countries due to increased agricultural intensification within systems that have low capacities to design and implement appropriate control measures. Limitationsare particularly prevalent in disease diagnosis and pathogen identification, surveillance and implementation of phytosanitary measures including plant quarantine (especially in conflict areas), production and utilization of virus-free material, application of appropriate cultural practices and vector control. FAO supports its member countries in development of appropriate policy, technological, regulatory, socio-economic, and political environment for improved disease management.

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