Major pest and disease outbreaks need quick responses - good campaigning is the key
Eric Boa, 05 Dec 2016
I live in the constituency which has just voted out Zac Goldsmith and voted in Sarah Olney. Bye bye Conservatives, welcome back Lib Dems. Sarah now abandons the accounts of the National Physical Laboratory and starts to juggle her new political career with two young children. I know a lot about Sarah because over the last four weeks her leaflets and letters have plopped through our door with remarkable frequency. The direct marketing was only part of an impressive campaign that included several visits by Lib Dem canvassers. Zac’s campaign was rather lack lustre, though still noticeably better than previous Conservative candidates who, prior to his election in 2010, lived in the shadow of a staunchly Lib Dem seat.
I’ve had an interest in campaigning for some time now, mainly because I’ve been trying to learn how public authorities combat major crop diseases (and pests); more specifically, how campaigns are organised and evaluated. I’m intrigued at the methods used in campaigns to raise awareness of pest and disease risks and manage the impact of those that are already established.
Running campaigns over large areas is a costly business so it’s important to know what communication channels work best and if you achieved what you set out to do. It’s even more important to think carefully about planning in developing countries because public services, social networks and access to mass media and mobile communications vary so much. Recently, in Rwanda, I wondered why a ‘stop malaria’ campaign had paid for huge advertising posters by main roads. Was this more effective than paying for radio slots? Or leaflets distributed to villages?
Banana xanthomonas wilt (BXW) affects millions of people in East Africa, from the highlands of North Kivu to the shores of Lake Victoria and slopes of Mt Elgon. When BXW was first reported from Uganda in 2001 it led to an avalanche of donor-led initiatives and projects. Discussions ranged far and wide, from research to extension, but what was needed most at the beginning was a quick campaign to tell farmers about the disease and what they could do about it.
Despite a flurry of meetings and workshops which identified this need, there seemed a hesitancy about running campaigns. Scientists fretted about the lack of knowledge of this new banana disease – as if this ever prevented campaigns to limit spread of new animal and human diseases. It took six months to design a poster, partly because we agonised about content but more because we operated in project-mode, with little sense of urgency and a poor vision of what a campaign might look like.
In due course campaigns were run in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania (the disease rapidly spread). These campaigns are said to have reduced spread and impact of the disease but it’s difficult to judge what they achieved on a large scale. Efforts that focused on small groups of villages and provided assistance in removing diseased plants (and providing new, healthy planting stock) seemed to work, but then this is hardly large scale. BXW is still widespread in Uganda and Rwanda but you can drive long distances without seeing any obvious signs of the disease. Does this mean the campaigns worked? Was the money well spent? Or did the disease fizzle out – either temporarily or more long term – for other reasons?
The short answer is that we don’t know. The Lib Dems in Richmond know that their campaign was successful and clearly reckon they’ve got value for the significant financial investment they made in door stepping, leaflets and showing Sarah (and her magnificent teeth) in action, including vox pops with Bob Geldorf. One more MP, a reduced government majority, oodles of publicity for a notional fight back for EU remainers (if only …). Result!
We need similar measures to assess the impact of pest and disease campaigns and better strategies on how to plan and execute them. There have been good reviews of plant disease campaigns in the UK (see Tomlinson et al. on Phytophthora ramorum) and the EU and others have considered them in a wider context. A brief description of ‘best practices’ for extension campaigns has just been published and I hope will help future campaigners. When reviewing campaign strategies it pays to look at all sorts. Even if the Richmond bye-election doesn’t immediately resonate with the plant health community there are still lessons about clarity of messages and getting out there. A recent policy brief gives a good overview of issues surrounding human health campaigns, highlighting the wider lessons that can be learnt – and applied – when the next big plant disease comes along. Be prepared: it’s just around the corner.