Human health is a big topic of conversation these days, and rightly so, but what about plant health? Although it doesn’t normally capture headlines and imaginations like coronavirus, the impacts of serious plant diseases or pest infestations extend far beyond the health of an individual plant. There are yield, marketability or quality, and even import/export issues that come into play — all of which have a negative impact on a grower’s bottom line. Depending on the severity, it could even have serious repercussions on the food supply. It’s why there is an entire agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) devoted to it, called the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS (pronounced AY-fis).
Globally, plant health is such a big deal that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH).
FAO estimates that up to 40% of food crops are lost due to plant pests and diseases annually. This leaves millions of people without enough food to eat and seriously damages agriculture – the primary source of income for rural poor communities.
One of the IYPH action items put forward by the FAO is to be careful with what plant and plant products are brought across borders around the world. In other words, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Of course, the organization makes other recommendations as well, but the reality is that plant pests and diseases usually find a way. In 2019 alone, APHIS reported that the agency intercepted 79,388 pests. The inspection professionals at APHIS are committed to their jobs and good at what they do, but we would never bet that they stop every plant pest arriving at our borders.
In 2016, a curious package was intercepted by an agricultural inspector at San Francisco International Airport. Upon closer inspection inside a secured room, a live nest of Vespa mandarinia was discovered to be its contents. In that case, the system worked. But in 2020, multiple specimens of the same organism have been discovered in the state of Washington, making news across the country. In case you are wondering, V. mandarinia is better known as the “murder hornet,” or the Asian giant hornet (AGH). According to CBS News, the hornet probably made its way to the U.S. on a cargo ship. Importantly, the discovered specimens are genetically different, suggesting separate arrivals of the invasive insect. In any case, the race is on to prevent the hornet from establishing itself in the U.S. In other words, we’re still pursuing a containment strategy and hopefully won’t need to shift to one of management (sound familiar?).
Of course, the AGH is not a direct threat to plants. But as has been well documented in news stories over the last several months, they are an enormous threat to the European honeybee which is a critical agricultural worker in its own right. If you are unfamiliar with the lethality and tactics of murder hornets on European honeybee colonies, spend a few minutes watching this National Geographic video from 2002 and accurately named, “Hornets from Hell.” Spoiler alert: Nature is not kind and cuddly.
For more nightmare fodder, check out the website Invasive Hornets, a collaborative photo library between USDA and the University of Georgia.
If stopping a giant insect measuring two inches long is difficult, how much more so is it to prevent microbial pests from establishing a foothold in the U.S.? Consider citrus greening. If you are unfamiliar with it citrus greening might sound innocuous, but it has been devastating to the U.S. citrus industry. It is the common name for Huanglongbing (HLB), a bacteria (Liberibacter asiaticus) that is transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid. HLB has reduced citrus production by 25 percent and more than doubled production costs, according to APHIS. It is estimated that 80 percent of citrus groves in Florida are infected, but the worst part is there is no known cure at this time despite considerable investments since its discovery in 2005.
Following a similar infection pathway as citrus, potatoes from Texas to the Pacific Northwest are susceptible to L. solanacearum, a bacteria vectored by the potato psyllid. The disease is more commonly known as “zebra chip” because of the darkened stripes that appear when the potato is prepared by frying. As is the case with the Asian citrus psyllid, the potato psyllid is no respecter of borders.
The examples of threats to plant health are virtually limitless. In the best-case scenarios, farmers have the strategies and tools to defend against pests and disease either through integrated pest management programs or other more direct means — either way there is a cost associated with the remedy. In worst-case scenarios, entire fields can be lost to symptoms ranging from non-emergence to reduced yields, quality, or both that can have devastating consequences on rural economies and ecosystems both in the near term and beyond. Of course, this speaks nothing of the food security issues that come into play when supply chains and infrastructure are compromised. At Medius Ag, we’re proud to be contributing to the fight against the constant dangers to our nation’s extraordinarily versatile agricultural industry by providing the data tools necessary to evaluate new varieties as quickly and efficiently as possible and ultimately identifying those that may prove to be an effective defense against these ever-changing and evolving threats.
The next time you’re in the grocery store picking up your fresh produce, remember that it was delivered in spite of multiple opposing forces, sometimes seen with the naked eye and sometimes only by microscope. Remember, plant health is a big deal for all of us.