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Preventing the spread of plant pandemic : new tools needed to contain threats to global food security

Plant diseases do not stop at national borders and miles of oceans do not prevent their spread. Therefore, plant disease surveillance, improved detection systems and global predictive disease modeling are necessary to reduce future disease outbreaks and protect global food supplies, according to a team of researchers in a new commentary published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The idea is to “detect the sources of plant disease outbreaks early and stop the spread before it becomes a pandemic,” said lead author Jean Ristaino, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University.

Once an epidemic occurs, it is difficult to control, says Ristaino, comparing the effort to that undertaken to stop the spread of COVID-19. “We have seen how important information sharing, data analysis and modeling have been in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These kinds of tools could also be used to build resilience against future plant disease outbreaks — from identifying risks in global crop trade networks to local monitoring of citizen science,” said co-author Graham MacDonald, assistant professor at While some diseases are already under some sort of global surveillance — such as wheat rust and Phytophthora, a major pathogen that affected potatoes and caused the Irish famine — other crop diseases are not routinely monitored.

few existing surveillance networks, but they need to be connected and funded by intergovernmental agencies and extended to global surveillance systems,” Ristaino says. “We can improve disease monitoring using electronic sensors that can help quickly detect and track emerging plant paths. eyes.”


Working together to protect crops


The researchers say the efforts of a wide range of scientists — so-called convergence science — are needed to prevent plant disease pandemics.

That means economists, engineers, crop scientists, crop disease specialists, geneticists, geographers, data analysts, statisticians and others are working together to protect crops, the farmers who grow crops and the people who feed those crops.

Research is underway to model the risk of spreading plant pathogens and help predict and then prevent outbreaks, they report in the paper. Modeling and predicting disease spread can help to more accurately mobilize mitigation strategies to stop pandemics.


Plant disease outbreaks are increasing


Worldwide outbreaks of plant diseases are increasing in frequency and threaten the global food supply, the researchers say. According to an article published in 2019, average losses of major food crops such as wheat, rice and maize ranged from 21 to 30 percent due to plant pests and diseases.

Take the case of bananas, especially the Cavendish variety, which is not resistant to a specific pathogen called Fusarium odoratissimum Tropical race 4, which causes Panama disease.

That pathogen quickly spread from Asia to Africa, the Middle East and recently to South America, where it affects the main banana variety grown in America for export.


Climate change exacerbating outbreaks


Climate change is likely to exacerbate these outbreaks, the researchers say. In Africa, for example, climate change and drought in Saharan Africa are impacting the population and range of locusts, devastating crops further south in sub-Saharan Africa.

Climate data can help predict disease and disseminate models. “More frequent rainfall allows airborne plant pathogens to spread and fungal spores to travel with hurricanes, which is how soybean rust got to North America from South America — via storms,” ​​said Ristaino, who also leads the faculty cluster at the University of California. state of North Carolina on emerging plant disease and global food security.

“There are also cases of early emergence, when pathogens appear earlier in the growing season than usual because of warmer springs.”

Furthermore, the global nature of the food trade is causing a number of plant disease pandemics.

The emergence of new harmful plant pathogens adds other risks to the food supply, which is already under pressure from growing global food demand.

“Globalization means that agriculture and food supply are increasingly intertwined across national borders.

Analyzing these crop trade networks, along with increased information sharing between countries, could help identify pest or disease risks,” says MacDonald.

The researchers say it is necessary to engage scientists in the fields of global human health and linking global plant health scientists to work together Food security and livelihoods are linked to agriculture and human health is linked to the food we consume.