Securing Food Sources from Attack

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

Plant diseases caused by a variety of microbes (pathogens)-including viruses, fungi, bacteria, and nematodes-cost the United States from $20 billion to $33 billion each year, according to the American Phytopathological Society. These costs result from losses in crop production, disruptions to trade, effects on human health, and disruption to rural economies. But an entirely new pathogen, perhaps introduced intentionally by a terrorist, could cost the United States several times that amount, in addition to endangering the public health.

Crop security is a topic of increasing importance to agriculture experts and to the U.S. government. To address the issue, Purdue University has established a Center for Crop Biosecurity, the purpose of which is to identify plants and pathogens that could damage U.S. crops, find gaps or avenues through which pathogens could invade the country, and make recommendations for prevention of pathogen attack.

Plant pathology expert Ray Martyn will head the new center, which will be part of the U.S. National Plant Diagnostic Network. Purdue and other research organizations are discussing plans with the federal government for a national plant biosecurity center within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“Currently there is no single place where people can go to get information on invasive plant pests and plant pathogens in case of national emergency,” Martyn says. “We need to be prepared for both unintentional and deliberate introductions.”

Most of the destructive alien crop diseases that have invaded the United States arrived through natural means or as byproducts of global trade. Despite scientists’ better understanding of how these diseases arrive, invasion of hostile plant pathogens remains a constant threat and an unavoidable occurrence, highlighting the need for a more coordinated office to deal with potential crop disasters.

One recent example is the invasion of the Phakopsora pachyrhizi pathogen, a fungus that causes Asian soybean rust. Hurricane Ivan brought the destructive fungus to the United States in 2004 after it had wreaked destruction in Asia and South America. The fungus could cost the U.S. economy $2 billion annually, with soybean yields dropping as much as 10%. The USDA warns that if the fungus were to escape from quarantine it could raise production costs an average of $25 per acre. The fungus has already been found throughout U.S. southern states.

“A major problem in dealing with soybean rust was that its arrival in this country was without warning. Only a few U.S. scientists had the expertise to study the disease, which had to be done in quarantined greenhouses,” says Martyn. “We need to anticipate and prepare for the arrival of many pathogens. This will require us to make early detections and diagnoses in order to coordinate activities among state and federal regulatory and enforcement agencies.”

-Patrick Tucker

Source: Purdue University, University News Service, 400 Centennial Mall Drive, Room 324, West LaFayette, Indiana 47907. Web site

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2006.


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