COMMENTARY: How to plan for pests while gardening during the pandemic

Many people are trying to grow their own food during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Hands are sketching plans onto paper. Window boxes are appearing on balconies. Seeds are sprouting in repurposed plastic containers.

For some of us, this is a familiar ritual. For others, the practice of growing food is brand new territory.

Regardless of experience, most home gardeners will contend with the challenge of pests. The word pest describes any organism that causes harm to humans or human interests. Pests can cause sudden and significant damage to homegrown food.

However, with a little planning, monitoring and intervention, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood and severity of these losses. Here are some thoughts to consider:

Hedge your bets

Pest impact varies considerably over short distances (e.g. sunny front yard to shady backyard). Some pests are picky eaters and only feed on a handful of plant types. For example, the Colorado potato beetle feeds on nightshades, including tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes.

Other pests pose risk only at certain times of the year. For instance, slug damage to plant seedlings is most severe in early summer.

By planting a diversity of plant species, in different places, with staggered planting dates, you can increase your chances of an abundant harvest. Check the back of your seed package for an estimate of how many days it will take the plant to reach maturity to ensure late-starters will have time to reach their full potential.

Notice the animals around you and plan ahead

Think about what animals you regularly see in your neighbourhood — and plan your lines of defence.

Deer have a particular fondness for crops like beans, peas, spinach and sweetcorn. If deer can access your plants, you should consider investing in fencing or netting. Deer tend to turn up their noses at strongly scented plants like mint, onions or oregano, and these can be planted in the places accessible to deer.

If your neighbourhood has a healthy raccoon population, container gardens might be a good option for you. By planting in containers, you can move your garden indoors at night and protect your harvest.

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Are you losing your tomatoes? Try harvesting them before the fruits reach peak ripeness. Placing unripe tomatoes in a paper bag for a few days will allow them to ripen in safety.

Not all insects are bad

Many major agricultural pests are insects and cause major losses of food across the world. However, an insect on your plant does not mean that it is causing harm.

Try watching the insect for a moment. How does it behave? Does it seem to be eating or laying eggs? If so, you might have a pest. Otherwise it could be a predator searching for a smaller insect to eat, a pollinator warming itself in the sun or simply a passerby on its way elsewhere.

Pesticide labels are legal documents that must be followed. They are written to protect the health of you, your family, your pets and the wider environment. Some regions prohibit the use of certain types of pesticides, so please familiarize yourself with local regulations before use.

Preventing hospital visits is even more important given the pressure our health-care system faces under COVID-19. Before using pesticides, try lower-risk options like integrated pest management practices, such as growing pest-resistant plant varieties, using row covers or including plant species that are highly attractive to natural enemies (like parasitic wasps) within the garden.

Ask for help

Whether you are a new or seasoned home gardener, pest problems can be real head-scratchers. Social media is an excellent way to connect with other gardeners to ask questions. Try #growyourown on Instagram, vegetable gardening forums on reddit or gardening groups on Facebook.

There are also a number of excellent blogs if you prefer to start with background reading.

While we are still physically distanced from one another, try picking up the phone and calling a friend who likes to garden. Take this time to connect with others over the challenges and joys of growing food.

Be kind to yourself

The food you purchase at farmer’s market and from grocery stores is grown by experts with knowledge, technology and dedicated time. Due to market demand, more often than not, the food on display is the best of the best.

So-called ugly produce is processed, used to feed livestock or wasted. Some of the food you grow will be ugly, often because of pest activity.

You may find caterpillars inside ears of corn or holes in your kale. Instead of fretting, use your discretion. Try removing the damaged portion using a sharp clean knife.

Enjoy the rest. It will be delicious, or at the very least — homegrown.The Conversation

Paul Manning, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Faculty of Agriculture, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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India's criticism of coronavirus test kits 'irresponsible': China

Beijing slams decision of India’s top medical body to stop using Chinese kits following complaints of poor accuracy.

China has criticised India’s decision to stop using Chinese testing kits for the novel coronavirus because of quality issues as unfair and irresponsible in the latest strain in their ties.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the top agency dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, said on Monday it planned to return the kits for antibody tests procured from two Chinese firms because of poor accuracy.


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The Chinese embassy said it was deeply concerned by the Indian decision and that Chinese authorities had validated the equipment produced by the two firms, Guangzhou Wondfo Biotech and Zhuhai Livzon Diagnostics.

“It is unfair and irresponsible for certain individuals to label Chinese products as ‘faulty’ and look at issues with pre-emptive prejudice,” embassy spokeswoman Ji Rong said in a statement.

The Chinese companies had exported equipment to several countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America without any problem, she said.

China was trying to help India fight the coronavirus with concrete action and it made sure the quality of its medical exports is a priority with manufacturers, Ji said.

Wondfo Biotech said in a statement it stood by the quality of its equipment and it had been validated by the Indian medical research body itself at the time of issuing an import licence.

Conflicting results

The diplomatic flap comes days after China criticised an Indian decision to step up scrutiny of investments from neighbouring countries, seen as a move to stave off opportunistic takeovers by Chinese firms during the coronavirus outbreak.

The two countries have been taking steps to improve ties but distrust stemming from a disputed border and China’s growing influence across the region remains deep in India.

India ordered more than half a million Chinese kits for testing for antibodies to the coronavirus this month as a way to boost its screening, among the lowest per capita in the world.

The antibody tests taken from blood samples do not always pick up early-stage infections but show whether a person had the virus in the past, even if the person had no symptoms.

In comparison, the standard swab test determines whether a person has the virus at that moment by looking for it in secretions.

Several Indian states said the Chinese tests had produced conflicting results.

Officials in Rajasthan state said the kits were initially used for testing patients who already had a confirmed infection for coronavirus but some results came back negative.

Ji said the tests needed to be carried out in a professional manner to produce accurate results.

“There are strict requirements for the storage, transportation and use of COVID-19 antibody rapid test kits,” she said.

“Any operation which is not carried out by professionals in accordance with the product specifications will lead to the testing accuracy variations.”

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Spanish PM reveals which key workers will avoid ‘extraordinarily tough’ new lockdown rules

Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez announced the “extraordinarily tough” restrictions on March 28, which forces all non-essential workers to remain at home for two weeks.  

These workers will still receive their usual salaries but will be expected to make up lost hours over time, he said.

“This measure will reduce the mobility of people even further – it will reduce the risk of contagion and will allow us to decongest the ICUs,” Mr Sanchez said in a televised statement.

On Sunday, Spain’s government issued further details on which essential workers should still continue to work from Monday, according to Euro Weekly News.

These workers reportedly include those involved in: security and law enforcement bodies including the armed forces; all medical and healthcare professionals; social security service workers including immigration and refugee centres; transport workers and cleaning/refuse collection services; news media and many others.


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For now, the tougher lockdown is expected to last until April 9.

The restrictions come as reported infections in Spain hit 72,248 as of Sunday – a rise of 8,189 from the previous day.

Sunday also saw a further 832 deaths in the country, taking the total to 5,690.

Spain is now one of the worst-hit countries in the world in terms of covid-19 cases, behind the US, China and Italy.

Speaking to Sky News, Professor Julio Mayol, Medical Director at Clinico San Carlos Hospital in Madrid, said: “It is a bad situation. It is really bad.

“The problem is, we can increase the room available, we can provide them with more beds, but we need PPEs… and there is a global shortage.”

Prime Minister Sanchez currently leads Spain’s Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), and has been Prime Minister of Spain since June 2018.

The government there is currently a coalition, comprising of the PSOE and the left-wing Unidas Podemos electoral alliance.


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The country has a population of around 46.7 million people.

Meanwhile, the total number of confirmed cases in the UK as of Sunday rose by 2,546 to 17,093, according to WHO figures.

Total UK deaths as of Sunday were 1,019 – up 260 from Saturday.

There are no known plans for the UK to follow Spain’s tougher measures just yet. Although last week’s UK lockdown measures did require all non-essential shops and certain businesses to close, there is currently no ban on non-critical workers from travelling to work if they cannot work from home.

However, in a letter which is due to arrive on the doorsteps of British households later this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected will note that tougher measures are a possibility.

He wrote: “From the start, we have sought to put in the right measures at the right time. We will not hesitate to go further if that is what the scientific and medical advice tells us we must do.

“It’s important for me to level with you – we know things will get worse before they get better. 

“But we are making the right preparations, and the more we all follow the rules, the fewer lives will be lost and the sooner life can return to normal.”

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Global Affairs: Covid-19's existential threat to the EU

LONDON • For the moment, all European governments are concentrating their entire firepower on fighting the still virulent coronavirus epidemic.

But behind the scenes, a battle just as critical to the future of the continent is unfolding, about the ways European states should manage the huge economic costs of the pandemic.

There are no easy solutions, for the damage to European economies will be massive and long-lasting; the real choice facing Europe is whether these should be borne by all countries together, or by each one individually.

And while nobody should doubt the sense of solidarity that binds European governments, the Europeans have a history of stumbling on the solution only after exhausting all the wrong options.

Either way, nobody doubts what is at stake here: the very survival of the euro and, perhaps, of the European Union (EU) itself. The coronavirus is confronting Europe with a challenge just as existential and as grave as that of a war.

Estimates of the pandemic’s potential costs to European economies are impossible to compute with any degree of accuracy at this stage, since there are so many variables. Nobody knows how long the crisis will last and how many weeks or months key European states will have to remain in lockdown.

Nor can Europe escape the ripple effects of economic downturns in China and other parts of Asia, as well as in North America. So it is not a surprise that even those brave economists and analysts who are willing to hazard a prediction are unable to reach a consensus; some predict a “V-shaped” recovery with a sharp rebound after the current steep decline, while others assume a longer “U-shaped” recovery.

Although each scenario implies different policy choices, certain major conclusions are emerging clearly enough.

The first is that the initial batch of national statistics from individual EU member-states indicates that the economic impact of this crisis will be huge. Over the past few days, for instance, the French statistical agency revealed that France’s economic output is already down by 35 per cent and that the crisis this year will knock three points off French gross domestic product (GDP) if the lockdown lasts a month, and 6 per cent should it last two months.

If projected to all the countries in the euro zone, most estimates now assume a contraction of 15 per cent of GDP in the second quarter of this year and around 10 per cent for the whole of 2020 – figures that are comparable to those recorded during the darkest days of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and about 10 times worse than the economic contraction experienced during the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

Furthermore, governments throughout Europe are now pledged not only to cover the salaries of people retrenched as a result of the economic downturn, but also to pouring money into national enterprises in order to save them from collapse, and underwrite the biggest single expansion in state spending on healthcare since World War II.

The age of big government is back with a vengeance as countries return to the ideas – dominant 50 years ago – that governments and not the private sector are the best managers of economies and the best allocators of resources. And this applies to European countries ruled by centre-right politicians, as much as it does to countries where state spending was always high.

Take for instance the British government, elected only last December on an agenda strongly in favour of private enterprise; it has just made spending promises equivalent to about a fifth of the national economy, a staggering amount unprecedented in the country’s peacetime history.

And what is one to make of Germany, a nation so ideologically averse to borrowing that it has made the so-called “schwarze Null” (black zero) – a commitment to zero deficit in national budgets – a binding legal requirement on all its future governments?

All this caution was thrown to the wind in the past few weeks, with offers of around €600 billion (S$953 billion) of state credits which are not only designed to protect ordinary Germans from temporary hardship, but also to buy government stakes in German firms which may be subject to hostile takeovers. One candidate for such a “nationalisation” may well be Lufthansa, the German airline which has practically halted its business. If this happens, it will signify a complete and fundamental reversal of decades of economic liberalisation policies in Europe.

The snag is that while each European state’s effort to rescue its national economy can be justified as a response to an extraordinary emergency, the cumulative effect of all these national initiatives is to tear to pieces the EU’s current financial arrangements.

The European Stability and Growth Pact, which governs the operation of the euro, requires member states to keep their budget deficits at not more than 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). It also requires states’ national debt to go no higher than 60 per cent of GDP. Italy and France, to name but a few, were already at 130 per cent and 100 per cent respectively in terms of national debt even before the epidemic. And with the full lockdowns, those figures will soar.

If all the German promises to lend to its economy are cashed in, Germany itself may register a budget deficit of around 5 per cent of GDP – almost double the rate demanded by European treaties – and could see its total national debt soar to around 80 per cent of GDP.

So, while in previous EU financial crises Germany acted as the policeman ordering all other nations to respect their obligations, this time the Germans are also “sinners”. Besides, the EU has already bowed to the inevitable by lifting its budget caps, for the first time ever.

But this is a temporary, exceptional measure. And as the most indebted countries in Europe know too well, ultimately they can only afford to borrow the sort of money they are currently pledged to spend if Germany and the rest of the euro zone are able to guarantee this borrowing. Without this mutual guarantee, repaying the interest and capital on this sort of debt will become unsustainable, just as it was for Greece, which faced bankruptcy a decade ago.

Italy already cannot issue a guarantee to bail out its private firms as France is offering because Italy’s debt ratios are already regarded unsustainable. And as the downturn grips, other EU countries risk being sucked into the same predicament.

One option may be to use the European Stability Mechanism, a fund worth €400 billion created in the wake of the last financial crisis, in order to support the current borrowing needs of nations. Another relief could come from the €750 billion fund which the European Central Bank has pledged to spend buying the bonds of euro zone member-states.

But access to all these funds comes with conditions which will ultimately force the borrowing countries to accept the sort of gut-wrenching horrible economic austerity conditions Greece suffered, only to still remain one of Europe’s most-indebted nations.

That is why last week the leaders of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Belgium and Greece demanded the creation of a “common debt instrument” which, on the suggestion of the Italian prime minister, ended up being nicknamed the “corona bonds”.

The idea is that these badly-named bonds will be guaranteed by all EU member-states, carry no political conditions and, as leaders of the demanding countries politely put it, should be of a “sufficient size and maturity” not to threaten Europe’s future economic recovery. Translated into normal language, what these countries are asking for is a great deal of money with no questions asked and no need for repayment for some decades to come.

Unsurprisingly, the Germans who are going to have to foot the bill for these bonds will not hear of it. At a “virtual” EU teleconference summit last Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel simply repeated her “nein” response no less than four times. Her refusal was echoed by the Dutch, whose Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he “cannot foresee any circumstances in which the Netherlands will accept euro bonds”.

EU leaders hope to ultimately wear the German and Dutch opposition down, as the sheer scale of Europe’s problems becomes clear. But that would be a feat of monumental proportions. Without a constitutional change, the German government simply has no powers to accept such liabilities. Nor is there any political consensus inside Germany to shoulder such continent-wide obligation. German politicians fear – not unreasonably – that once the principle of guaranteeing other countries’ debt is accepted, there will be no end to further requests of the same nature.

And most German officials believe that the other Europeans find themselves in such a predicament now because they failed to reduce their outstanding debts over the past few years, when their economies were growing.

More significantly, the timing for accepting such a fundamental obligation could not have been worse for the Germans, just as Germany itself is about to experience an economic downturn, just when Germany’s own borrowing requirements are likely to balloon and just when Chancellor Merkel is facing retirement after more than 15 years in office. A least favourable sequence of events could have hardly been invented.

But without this German guarantee and without the creation of bonds mutually guaranteed by all, it is difficult to see how the euro could survive the pressures between the needs of its poorer south, and the reluctance of its richer north to pay for it.

The continent faced exactly the same challenge a decade ago, and ducked the question by bailing out Greece from bankruptcy, while passing on the horrendous costs of that operation on to the Greeks themselves.

Yet with hindsight, that was just a mere rehearsal for what is about to unfold now, involving far bigger economies such as Italy or France. Without a mutual debt guarantee which prevents another debt crisis, the entire euro edifice may collapse.

Nobody should underestimate Germany’s determination to save the euro, or the EU’s determination to stick together in moments of crises; those who betted in the past on the euro’s demise were wrong.

Still, the stakes are huge, and the dangers bigger still. None other than Mr Jacques Delors, the former French politician and the man who shaped the EU of today, now warns that “the climate which seems to reign between the heads of states and governments and the lack of European solidarity pose a mortal danger to the European Union”.

“The microbe is back”, he adds. And he is not referring to the coronavirus.

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