April 15, 2020 | By Diana Horvath

Guest Commentary - The Next Pandemic Could Attack Our Crops

By Diana Horvath, 2Blades Foundation

It’s no longer hard to imagine: a highly virulent pathogen spreads through susceptible individuals over ever-larger areas, aided by global travel and trade, threatening the lives of millions of people. 

Except this scenario is not about a disease that affects people. Rather, it will attack our food crops, with very high costs in lives and treasure. 

COVID-19 has demonstrated the damage that results from an unchecked disease spreading throughout our highly connected world. But most people are unaware that plants also succumb to infectious diseases, reducing global crop yields by 15 percent or more, and costing at least $220 billion every year.  

While many plant diseases cause only minor damage or are controlled with agrochemicals, there are unmanaged diseases that cause 70-80 percent losses or even failure of an entire crop. 

Crop losses due to plant disease have occurred throughout history, contributing to famines and disruption -- in India in the 1940s (brown spot disease in rice), Ireland in the 1840s (late blight potato disease), and going back to ancient Rome (wheat stem rust).  

The threats to crops are greater today because our food systems rely on fewer crops, planted at high density, over wide areas, with great homogeneity, providing an attractive buffet for pathogens. The long list of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes that attack our top staple crops (wheat, rice, corn, potatoes) as well as our fruits and vegetables, requires us to be vigilant and proactive against these threats. 

Plant diseases not only cause food losses, they also waste inputs -- of seed, water, and fertilizer to nurture the crop -- as well as the additional costs of labor, chemicals, and environmental impacts to fight disease. 

For developing countries, plant disease means less food for farm families and their communities, impacting their incomes, nutrition, and health. The resulting scarcity and higher food prices can drive economic instability, civil unrest, and migration. 

Today as food flies off grocery shelves, agricultural production and its supply chain are under special pressures, from shortages in stores, a reduced labor force on the farm and in the distribution system, to quarantines and closed borders. Crop diseases, if left unchecked, will create a comparable crisis in the future, and could be multiplied further as warming temperatures expand their footprint. 

Science provides tools to contain and limit damage from plant diseases by detecting and treating infected crops. Yet, as with human pandemics, the best and least harmful option is to prevent plant disease by developing disease-resistant crop varieties.   

At the 2Blades Foundation, our scientists manage and advance lab research into field trials to develop disease-resistant crop seeds for agriculture, with a special aim of benefiting smallholder farmers in developing nations. In our 15 years of work we have made major contributions toward the development of disease-resistant varieties of wheat, potatoes, corn, soybeans, and other crops -- to help protect harvests and improve farmers' income, nutrition, and health, while reducing dependence on chemical pesticides. 

Because such research often takes a decade or longer to result in a new disease-resistant seed variety, policymakers must act now to support more resources for disease research on the crops that have sustained us for centuries, and which have never been at greater risk. Senator Dick Durbin, and Congresswoman Cheri Bustos recently proposed increases in agriculture research to address current and future challenges in food production, and this is a welcome trend. 

Crop disease research is even more urgent as the world adds another 2 billion people by 2050. Reducing or ending crop disease will not only help feed these new arrivals, it can help us grow the needed crops with less water, land, and chemicals now required to nurture and protect our food crops. 

As with COVID-19, the best way to respond to a crop disease pandemic is to be prepared well in advance. If we make the critical investments now we can protect our agriculture bounty, not just for ourselves but for generations to come. 

 

 

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA

Archive

| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet. 










| By Janet Fierro

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When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.