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YAMS UNDER THREAT – New Disease Identified

By Marvlin Anthony

A new disease known as Yam Rust is currently posing a threat to farmers. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the disease has been identified in various agricultural regions across the island.

Rigorous laboratory testing has confirmed the existence of the disease, says the Ministry.

“The affected yam varieties include white, yellow, and Portuguese yams. It is imperative for farmers to consistently monitor their crops for any signs of infection. Early detection is crucial and prompt corrective action is necessary to curtail the further spread of the disease,” the Ministry said in a statement on Monday.

Also known as Goplana dioscorea and Goplana australis, Yam Rust is caused by a fungal pathogen. Symptoms (for Goplana dioscoreae) include yellow spots or pustules on upper leaf surfaces and sometimes on the petioles and stems, Pacific Pests, Pathogens & Weeds noted on its website. Symptoms also include pale yellow pustules which is mostly found on the under surface (for Goplana australis).

“The Ministry recognizes the critical significance of yams as a staple tuber in our diet and its substantial contribution to farmers as a year-round cash crop supporting their livelihoods,” the Ministry said in its statement, adding that it is actively collaborating with the farming community and Saint Lucia’s Agricultural Extension Division to implement effective control measures against Yam Rust.

The Ministry strongly advised farmers against moving planting materials from one location to another as this practice significantly contributes to the transmission of the disease between farms. Likewise, travellers are encouraged to avoid the illegal importation of yams and other planting material without the requisite permission or guidance.

In the coming weeks, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Crop Protection Unit will continue to work with the Agriculture Extension Unit to provide guidance and advice to farmers on essential prevention and control measures.

According to the Ministry, the Research Department initiated a survey which started yesterday “to assess the prevalence and extent of this disease across the entire island. The survey will provide the opportunity to understand the disease cycle within our ecosystem in order to provide disease management guidance to farmers.”

At a press briefing on Monday Agricultural Minister Alfred Prospere noted that farmers have also been “experiencing some problems (with) watermelons (as) weeks before harvesting all the foliage disappears. We have problems (with) our coconuts. Remember we were exporting mangoes to Barbados and because (of) the mango seed weevil we stopped exporting so there are a range of insect pests that are just emerging because of the whole issue of climate change and so on. The yam issue is a first-time thing, we’ve not had that experience before. Before we had insects… attacking the yam… but those insects would have been controlled.”

Still, the Minister indicated, there is hope for farmers despite the presence of Yam Rust.

“We are now conducting an investigation to identify the source (of the disease) to see how we can get it under control,” Prospere told reporters.

In 2021, Yam Rust was discovered in Dominica. Dominica’s Acting Head of Plant Protection and Quarantine Services Nelson Laville (at the time) said “with our literature study, we noticed that in the countries where it was first reported in 1936, it became epidemic in 2001, which means that it causes the yields and also the death of plants. In some cases, it is estimated at 80 percent in those countries.”

He noted that “what is important to us now is basically to advise our farmers and exporters on how to deal with it. Traditionally, we grow, weed, fertilize and harvest yams but currently, because of this problem and its potential risk to reduce our yields and to even kill all plants, then we have to begin certain treatments and management practices.”

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