Written by Finan Adamson & Al Hundley
Crop pathogens don’t produce images as viscerally frightening as human pathogens, but crop pathogens can have significant impacts on food supplies and economies. In addition to the harm caused by reduced food supply and trade within countries, crop diseases can cause restrictions on trade that significantly harm economies. The discovery of karnal blunt, a fungal disease of wheat, in Texas in 2001 caused 25 countries to ban imports from affected countries, resulting in about $250 million of lost revenue1.
Another example is Clubroot which first hit the $27 billion Canadian canola industry in 2003.4 Clubroot is a disease that affects brassicas, which include things like cabbages, cauliflowers, and turnips3. After cereals, brassicas are the most economically and nutritionally important crops worldwide2.
Genetically resistant strains have been produced but these strains take a long time to develop and clubroot quickly adapts to the resistance4. Switching to non-brassica crops can help reduce the impact of clubroot, but Canadian farmers are hesitant to switch to other crops because canola is the most profitable for them4. Another concern is that clubroot can last many years in the soil, infecting suitable hosts once they are reintroduced4. Clubroot’s persistence makes it particularly difficult to eradicate.
Long term solutions to clubroot are unlikely to happen without significant coordination between governments, corporations, and farmers. The short term profitability of crops that are affected by clubroot sometimes outweighs the long term costs of continuing to grow those crops. Clubroot remains a growing problem in the world that has not yet been met by an adequate solution.
It is important to note that Clubroot is a naturally occurring pathogen. With the advent of low cost and readily accessible gene editing technologies like CRISPR there is concern in policy making and national security circles that rogue nations or terrorists might genetically engineer even more devastating plant diseases5. ALLFED is concerned that both natural and engineered pathogens can cause sudden drops in global food supply. We want to ensure that response plans are made so food needs can be addressed in such disasters.
Food scarcity is bad for any country, but it’s especially bad in the developing world6. The economic impact of crop diseases can also have long lasting social impact. It is clear that more research and work is needed to develop adequate systems to deal with the harms caused by crop pathogens.
Crop pathogens are one of the risks that ALLFED wants to address. Research and response plans can help us feed people when disaster strikes and may even help with ongoing problems in food production. ALLFED intends to continue doing research and developing response plans to feed everyone when disasters occur that can’t be addressed with the current ways we grow food.
- Dixon, G. R. (2014). Clubroot (Plasmodiophora brassicae Woronin)–an agricultural and biological challenge worldwide. Canadian journal of plant pathology.
- Gene Editing Is Now Cheap and Easy—and No One Is Prepared for the Consequences, by Vivek Wadhwa, SingularityHub, Sept. 8, 2015