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Are HD apple varieties responsible for Leaf Miner spread in Kashmir? Experts speak

Nadeem Khan and Farhana Sheikh – Ziraat Times

Srinagar: The recent surge in the Apple Leaf Miner (ALM) disease in Kashmir’s apple orchards has raised significant concerns among farmers,  horticulturists, traders and investors.
Ziraat Times set out to delve into the scientific reasons behind this outbreak, particularly the role of imported high-density apple varieties and the perceived unscientific quarantine practices, and what measures must be taken in the immediate and medium term by SKUAST Kashmir, the Department of Horticulture, and high-density plant importers to mitigate this crisis. Here is what experts say:
Likely reasons for the rise of Apple Leaf Miner (ALM)  disease
There is a scientific rationale and strong public perception that high-density apple varieties, which have been increasingly imported into Kashmir to boost productivity, may carry pests and diseases not previously present in the region.
Even as Ziraat Times sought expert views from SKUAST Kashmir scientists and senior management on the matter, there has been no response so far.
“The truth is these varieties, often chosen for their high yield and commercial appeal, can harbor pests like the Apple Leaf Miner (Phyllonorycter spp.), which can adapt to new environments and become more virulent in the absence of natural predators. Another truth is that there are so many commercial interests in this business now that there is little or no focus on scientific quarantine and  mitigation measures”, says Muzamil Akram, a scholar studying pest management.
However, Horticulture Department insists that the pest prevalence has been significantly reduced due to the collective efforts at several levels.
Speaking to Ziraat Times, Zahoor Ahmed Bhat, Director, Horticulture Department, Kashmir,  maintained that while Leaf Miner emerged in 2021 in district Shopian in some pockets, the initial incidence was reported to be 40-50%. Maintaining that the pest was reported from conventional orchards first, Mr Zahoor maintained that high density orchards get least affected by the pest.
However, consistent efforts by SKUAST-Kashmir and Horticulture Department has  lowered its intensity to 3-4 %, Mr Zahoor said, adding that the spread to new areas could not be contained.
“The recommended pesticides advised against the pest are available in the market and they work well and advisories are issued from time to time to help farmers in controlling this pest”, he added.
Questions over scientific quarantine practices
Independent experts, however,  believe that the gaps in implementing rigorous quarantine measures have actually facilitated the introduction and spread of ALM in Kashmir orchards, especially in South Kashkir areas where high density apple varieties are fast replacing the traditional varieties.
“Despite all the measures of the Horticulture Department and SKUAST-Kashmir in containing the spread of the pest, imported apple plant material to J&K often bypasses stringent checks, allowing pests and diseases to enter local ecosystems”, says Dr Neha Singh, a plant pathologist.
“Inadequate quarantine protocols mean that pests like the ALM are able to  easily proliferate, especially in unmanaged orchards where pest control practices are lax”, Dr Singh added.
Lack of adequate climate change link research
Climate variations, such as increased temperatures in early spring and altered precipitation patterns, especially after hot early springs in Kashmir region, are seen as favorable conditions for the proliferation of such pests.
“There is no adequate research available to probe how warmer early spring could be playing a role in  accelerate the lifecycle of pests like the ALM, leading to more generations per year and thereby increasing the infestation levels”, reasons Dr Rajesh Khanna, a Climate researcher.
The shift towards monoculture in apple farming in Kashmir, driven by the high-density plantation model, are also feared to reduce biodiversity in the apple orchard eco system.
“This increasing lack of biodiversity is another factor that can lead to pest outbreaks as natural control mechanisms are diminished, making orchards more susceptible to infestatios. There are climate change links to this new pattern”, says Dr Nazir Ahmed, a researcher.
“All imported plant material should undergo thorough inspection at entry points, which is not the case with imported apple materials to J&K”, says Dr Nazir.
“The system of checking and monitoring,  cutting edge monitoring and analysis of pests and other micro organisms, diseases, and adherence to phytosanitary standards is not a robust one in J&K”, Dr Rajesh says, adding that the implementing of a certification system has to be fool proof one to ensure that only pest-free materials are planted.
Experts also argue that J&K does not have the kind of advanced prat monitoring and management system as it is prevalent in advanced apple producing countries like in Europe and north America.
“Advanced apple producing countries have established high tech quarantine stations where all kinds of new plant materials are held and monitored for a specified period before being released for cultivation. That system is usually fool proof and the same does not exist in J&K”, says Dr Neha.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) through biological control
Globally, a new trend is picking up that focuses on introducing natural predators of ALM to help control its population. This includes predators such as parasitoid wasps which target ALM larvae.
While it is a fact that not all farmers are able to follow the Spray Schedule of SKUAST-Kashmir in letter in spirit, evidence made available to Ziraat Times suggests that even the orchards which strictly follow the spray schedule, Apple Leaf Miner does proliferate.
Experts believe that SKUAST-Kashmir should lead cutting edge research into developing pest-resistant apple varieties and effective control measures.
“Collaborative efforts with international agricultural bodies can enhance the understanding and management of ALM. At the same time, regular monitoring of orchards for early detection of ALM infestations is crucial to enable timely intervention. Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) have to do more, venture out, collect data and produce evidence based research. That is not happening unfortunately”, Dr Nazir says.
Regulating plant imports
Apple industry veterans from Kashmir also believe that enforcement of stricter regulations on the import of high-density apple varieties, including mandatory pest risk analysis is a big necessity.
They also believe policies should ensure that all nurseries adhere to certified pest-free standards, and registrations should be withdrawn in compliance is found lax.
“I have been studying this issue closely on the ground and believe that the rise of the Apple Leaf Miner disease in Kashmir’s apple orchards is influenced partly by  introduction of high-density apple varieties and insufficient quarantine measures. We need a  comprehensive approach to address this crisis involving rigorous quarantine protocols, integrated pest management, scientific research, farmer education, and supportive policies. If this is not done quickly in a systematic manner, Kashmir’s apple industry, already facing many challenges, could face more trouble”, says Shahnawaz Magray, a progressive farmer from Kulgam, Kashmir.

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