Plant diseases having increasingly devastating effects
In June I was fortunate enough to attend a captivatingly interesting conference organized by the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Food Security on how to improve global food security and the technologies required to accomplish this. Of the numerous speakers, one stood out for me, Sarah Gurr, the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, presenting on the impacts fungi and plant diseases on our ability to improve food security.
Dr. Gurr shockingly explained that crop production losses caused by the top five plant diseases are enough to feed 600 million to 4 billion additional individuals. A huge step towards feeding the expected 2-4 billion additional people by 2050, could come from making plants more resistant to the fungal pathogens that are responsible for reducing production. Fungal resistance could help with rice production, where rice blast disease has already been detected in 85 different countries and caused production losses of 10-35%. Another example provided was wheat losses due to rust. While we in North America have enjoyed improved rust resistance in wheat for many years, numerous other countries have not been so fortunate, with annual wheat losses due to rust reaching $500 million (USD). This is particularly the case with a new, aggressive rust variety (Ug99) found in Africa and the Middle East, first detected in 1999 which causes 100% loss.
The concerning problem of fungi as presented by Dr. Gurr is that fungi habitable zones have been expanding at substantial rates over the past 20 years. Due to climate change, fungi has moved into areas where they previously were incapable of surviving, yet are now able to establish a presence and negatively impacting crop production. While the habitable areas for fungi and plant pathogens are expanding, the parallel concern is the increasing virulence.
This growing habit of fungi and pathogens is a signal that increased efforts and investments are required that address disease resistance. To date, there have been numerous GM varieties featuring herbicide and insect resistance, other programs are working on improving drought resistance, but there has only been one virus-resistant plant variety developed to date, the papaya. Papaya in Hawaii were developed to be resistant to papaya ringspot virus, which saved papaya production in Hawaii from destruction.
Crop losses to plant disease threaten global efforts to improve food security. Having available biotechnology plant breeding technologies for developing country plant breeders could help develop local virus resistance variety crops specific to small regions growing conditions. Such efforts could be essential when it comes to providing daily nutrient requirements. Unlike in industrial countries, many people in developing countries draw the vast majority of their daily nutrient intake from a single food, such as rice. Crop losses due to plant disease have a devastating effect in situations such as this.
The concern is that those opposed to the use of biotechnology in developing countries will prevent plant breeders in these countries from having access to leading technology innovations that could enhance food security. While genetic modification may not be the appropriate technology is some instances, it needs to be an option. For food security to have a realistic opportunity to improve, plant breeders in developing countries need access to every option available.