Plant diseases don’t stop at national borders and miles of oceans don’t prevent their spread, either. That’s why disease surveillance, improved detection systems, and global predictive disease modeling are necessary to mitigate future disease outbreaks & protect the worldwide food supply, consistent with a team of researchers in a new commentary published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The idea is to “detect these plant-disease outbreak sources early and stop the spread before it becomes an epidemic ,” says lead-author Jean Ristaino, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University. Once a plague occurs it’s difficult to regulate , Ristaino says, likening the trouble to the one undertaken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We’ve seen how important information sharing, data analytics, and modeling are in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. These sorts of tools could even be leveraged to help-build resilience to future disease outbreaks – from identifying risk in global crop trade networks to local citizen science monitoring,” says co-author Graham MacDonald, professor within the Department of Geography at McGill University.
While some diseases are already under some kind of global surveillance – like as wheat rust & late blight , a crucial pathogen that affects potatoes and caused Irish famine – other crop diseases aren’t routinely monitored.
“There are a couple of existing surveillance networks, but they have to be connected and funded by intergovernmental agencies and expanded to global surveillance systems,” says Ristaino. “We can improve disease monitoring using electronic sensors which will help rapidly detect then track emerging plant pathogens.”
Working together to guard crops
The researchers say the efforts from a good range of students – so-called convergence science – are needed to stop disease pandemics. Means economists, engineers, crop scientists, crop disease specialists, geneticists, geographers, data analysts, statisticians et al. working together to guard crops, the farmers growing crops and therefore the people fed by those crops.
Research is underway to model the danger of plant pathogen spread and help predict then prevent outbreaks, they report in-the paper. Modeling and forecasting disease spread can help mobilize mitigation strategies more precisely to prevent pandemics.
Plant disease outbreaks are increasing
Global plant-disease outbreaks are increasing in frequency and threaten the worldwide food supply, the researchers say. Mean losses to major food crops like wheat, rice and maize ranged from 21-30 percent thanks to plant pests and diseases, consistent with a paper published in 2019.
Take the case of bananas, specifically the Cavendish variety, which has no resistance to a selected pathogen called Fusarium odoratissimum Tropical race 4, which causes Panama disease. That pathogen spread rapidly from Asia to Africa, the center East and recently into South America, where it affects main type of banana grown within the Americas for export.
Climate change exacerbating outbreaks
Climate change will likely exacerbate these outbreaks, the researchers say. In Africa, for instance , global climate change and drought in Saharan Africa affect the population and range of locusts, which devastate crops further south in Sub-Saharan Africa . Climate data can help drive disease forecasting and spread models.
“More frequent rainfall can allow airborne plant pathogens to spread and fungal spores can move with hurricanes, which is how soybean rust came to North America from South America – via storms,” says Ristaino, who also directs North Carolina State’s faculty cluster on emerging disease and global food security. “There also are cases of early emergence, when pathogens emerge earlier inn growing-season than usual thanks to warmer springs.”
Further, the worldwide nature of food trade is driving some disease pandemics. The emergence of latest harmful plant pathogens adds other risks to the food supply, which is already strained by growing global demand for food.
“Globalization means agriculture and food supplies are increasingly interconnected across national borders. Analyzing these crop trade networks combined with greater information sharing among countries can help to pinpoint risks from pests or diseases,” says MacDonald.
The researchers say there’s a requirement to link human global health and plant global health scientists to work together. Food security and livelihoods are linked to agriculture and human health is linked to the food we consume.
The research has been published on PNAS.