Plant Pandemic is Real: How a disease is threatening wheat, the world’s most important food crop
The next big pandemic could leave billions hungry. According to a study, an unprecedented spread of a fungus is threatening wheat, the most-consumed grain in the world. The blast disease is affecting production in Bangladesh and it could spread to India and China, the biggest exporters of wheat
“Pandemic”. It’s a word that has now become a part of our everyday lexicon. COVID-19 is far from over and there has been enough speculation about the next disease that could bring the world to a standstill. Another catastrophic pandemic might already be in the making. It’s the plant pandemic.
Wonder what it is and how it will affect humanity. We answer some key questions.
What is a plant pandemic?
As the name suggests, a plant pandemic strikes plants. Diseases that affect plants and crops can be devastating. Fungi are responsible for a majority of plant diseases in the agricultural world.
Like the novel coronavirus, plant diseases can also mutate fast and spread through spores, microscopic particles that are carried by wind, rain and soil.
Spores spread easily by their nature, but global trade and climate change are accelerating this process. Powerful storms and other extreme weather events bring pathogens to new regions where plants haven’t developed resistance. Modern monoculture farming only increases crops’ vulnerability to infection, according to a report in Scientific American.
What is the latest threat?
A new study shows that wheat, the world’s most important food crop, is threatened by a blast disease pandemic.
Caused by Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT), wheat blast is a fungal disease that affects wheat production in tropical and subtropical regions. The fungus could contribute to total crop failure. It was identified in Brazil in 1985 and it spread to major-wheat producing areas in the country and then to other South American countries like Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, according to a scientific paper on wheat blast published in July 2021.
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In recent years, the disease has been introduced to Bangladesh and Zambia via international wheat trade, threatening wheat production in South Asia and Southern Africa with the possible further spreading in these two continents, the paper says.
How deadly is this pandemic?
A new study conducted by researchers from across five continents, published in the scientific journal PLOS Biology, says that yield losses caused by pests and diseases average over 20 per cent. Most recently the wheat blast pandemic has affected Bangladesh and Zambia.
In Bangladesh in 2016, it destroyed around 15,000 hectares, spreading to more than 16 per cent of the country’s cultivated wheat area and consuming up to 100 per cent of yields, while in Zambia outbreaks have continued to occur with varying severity since its arrival in 2018, reports The Independent.
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Scientists have warned that the fungus could spread to other countries through spores carried by the wind or the import of infected seeds. The big worry is that it will spread from Bangladesh to neighbouring India and China, among the world’s largest exporters of wheat.
The fungus affecting crops in Bangladesh and Zambia is of the same genetic lineage as that in South America, according to the study conducted by an international team of scientists led by University College London and the Sainsbury Laboratory, East Anglia. However, the exact source of the fungus could not be identified.
The occurrence of wheat blast in three continents – Asia, Africa and South America – is worrying.
What could this mean for the world?
According to the study, climate conditions are likely to cause the spread of the disease, threatening global food security. This could leave billions hungry.
“The occurrence of wheat blast on three continents with climatic conditions highly conducive to its spread is unprecedented and represents a very significant threat to global food security which is exacerbated by the twin challenge of climate change and armed conflicts in major agricultural regions,” the authors wrote.
What can be done to stop the spread?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a lesson for all. According to scientists, the global community should follow the spread of this fungus using methods like genetic monitoring used to track the spread and mutations of coronavirus.
Genome surveillance, especially in countries neighbouring the affected areas, helps understand how to control the spread of the fungus.
“Only by really understanding the enemy and the pathogens that cause these diseases will we be able to really preventively control them. We have to assume that plant diseases are going to spread all over the world through the impacts of climate change and globalisation, and we have to be prepared for them,” Professor Nick Talbot of the Sainsbury Laboratory, one of the authors of the study, was quoted as saying by The Independent.
“We have to be proactive rather than reactive; we have to anticipate how the diseases will move and therefore plan accordingly,” he added.
According to researchers, more work needs to be done to understand how plant diseases may evolve to become resistant to pesticides and fungicides.
Has there been a plant pandemic in the past?
One of the worst plant diseases was the Panama disease, which destroyed banana plantations in Central and South America in the 1950s, devastating a critical food source and industry, according to a report in The Scientific American.
It was first defeated by the introduction of the now-familiar Cavendish banana variety, which was resistant. However, through mutation, a variant of the disease can now infect these plants and threatens commercial banana production globally, the report says.
The threat of a plant pandemic is real and the world has every reason to worry.
With inputs from agencies
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